Strength Training for Seniors–No Gym Required

Strength Training for Seniors–No Gym Required - Strength training is a form of physical exercise that uses resistance to induce muscle contraction. This builds the strength, size, and endurance of our muscles. Strength training has incredible benefits for youth and adults of all ages, including injury prevention, improved athletic performance, increased bone density, lowering our risk for many chronic diseases, and improving our day-to-day functioning.

Strength Training for Seniors–No Gym Required

Strength Training for Seniors–No Gym Required 

Editor’s Note:

Fitness coach Karina Inkster introduces the magical effects of strength training for seniors in her book “Resistance Band Workouts for Seniors: Strength Training at Home or on the Go.” In the following excerpt, Ms. Inkster outlines the benefits of resistance training—from improved muscle mass to greater physical strength—that can help seniors retain their independence and confidence while building a greater sense of overall well-being.

What is Strength Training?

Strength training is a form of physical exercise that uses resistance to induce muscle contraction. This builds the strength, size, and endurance of our muscles. Strength training has incredible benefits for youth and adults of all ages, including injury prevention, improved athletic performance, increased bone density, lowering our risk for many chronic diseases, and improving our day-to-day functioning.

Strength training (also called resistance training; I use the terms interchangeably) is a broad term that refers to any type of exercise that uses some form of resistance to strengthen and build muscle. We can create this resistance by using dumbbells, barbells, weight and cable machines at the gym, kettlebells, medicine balls, our own body weight, and—of course—resistance bands.

Note that when we talk about endurance within the context of strength training, we mean anaerobic endurance, where our muscles are relying on stored reserves of fuel, rather than oxygen. Anaerobic (without oxygen) activities are high-intensity and short duration, like sprinting or performing a challenging set of ten weighted squats.

In contrast, aerobic endurance refers to the ability of our respiratory and cardiovascular systems to maintain moderate intensity exercise over extended periods. Aerobic activities involve oxygen in our muscles’ energy-generating process. Swimming, jogging, or cycling at a consistent pace for thirty to sixty minutes, for example, requires aerobic endurance.

Benefits of Strength Training

Bone Density

Bone density is the amount of calcium and other minerals in our bones. Stronger, healthier bones have a higher mineral content, while low mineral content (and thus low bone density) is a risk factor for osteoporosis and bone fractures.

Bone density decreases as a normal part of aging. The good news is you can prevent and slow down this bone loss by strength training regularly! We can even build new bone in later life by resistance training consistently. 1, 2 This greatly reduces our risk for osteoporosis, and improves our odds of maintaining independence in later life.

Strength training can increase bone mineral density at any age, and at any fitness level. One study found a 6 percent increase in hip bone mineral density in older women (mean age 71.9) with decreased muscle strength, after strength training for an hour, three days a week for sixteen weeks. 3 In another study, postmenopausal women with low or very low bone density improved the strength of their bones by resistance training twice a week for thirty minutes, for eight months. 4

Other research looked at the effects of strength training in older male sprint athletes. For twenty weeks, half the study participants engaged in a strength training program along with their sprint training, and the other half continued with their regular running based sprint training. The group that engaged in strength training improved the structure and strength of their tibia (shin) bones, while the tibias of those not performing strength training remained unchanged. The researchers concluded, “Intensive strength and sprint training improves mid-tibia structure and strength in middle-aged and older male sprint athletes, suggesting that in the presence of high-intensity loading exercise, the adaptability of the bone structure is maintained during aging.” 5

Muscle Mass, Strength, and Healthy Aging

Strength training is about as close as you can get to a real-life “fountain of youth.” Muscle mass naturally decreases as we age, but we can prevent much of this by making sure we engage in regular resistance training.

Muscle mass—particularly of the lower body—in older adults is a strong predictor of falls, mobility, and independence. One recent study found that low muscle mass in a group of more than 1,000 older adults was significantly associated with a higher fall risk ten years after being measured. In addition, low handgrip strength was associated with a higher bone fracture risk, and when body mass was taken into account, low muscle mass was associated with a higher mortality rate. 6

Another study found that adults aged eighty and older with significant muscle loss were more than three times more likely to fall during a follow-up period of two years, compared to participants who didn’t have as much muscle loss. This relationship persisted even when variables like gender, age, physical activity, number of medications, cognitive impairment, and body mass index were controlled for. 7

Several studies have examined strength training with resistance bands. One randomized controlled trial studied overweight older women with sarcopenia (low muscle mass). After training with resistance bands for twelve weeks, participants had increased muscle mass, muscle quality, and physical function. Another study found “improved muscle strength and endurance, cardiovascular function, and gait speed” in older adults with dementia after they trained with resistance bands three times a week for five months. 9

Fat Loss and Body Composition

Improving body composition means decreasing fat and increasing muscle. In the previous section, we saw that strength training with resistance bands can help to increase muscle mass. This is an important piece of the equation, but many people also want to work on fat loss.

When it comes to body composition and changing your physique, four main factors will affect your results. In order of importance, here’s what will most affect your physique:

1. Nutrition

Eating a diet that supports your fitness and physique goals is the foundation of getting the results you want. You may have heard the saying, “You can’t out-train a bad diet!” We tend to overestimate the calories we’ve burned while working out, and underestimate the calories we’re consuming in our food. For example, the average person would need to run one mile to burn the energy equivalent of just ten almonds.

If you’re looking to change your physique, try to view food as an athlete would: it’s fuel for your training and recovery, rather than something you’ve “earned” after a workout (although treats, in moderation, should be a part of any long-term approach to nutrition!).

Ensure you’re eating mostly whole foods, cooking most of your meals at home, and eating an overall volume of food that suits your goals. If you’re working on losing fat, you’ll need to be in a calorie deficit (consuming fewer calories than you burn in a day), and if you’re working on gaining muscle mass, you’ll need to eat in a calorie surplus (consuming more calories than you burn in a day).

There is no universal recommended daily amount for protein, so individual needs will differ. Most of my clients who strength train aim to get about 20 percent of their total calories from protein. If you’re active, in a healthy weight range, and looking to lose fat and/or gain muscle, aiming for 0.8–1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is a great place to start. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds you’d need between 120 and 150 grams of protein per day, and for a body weight of 200 pounds you’d need between 160 and 200 grams of protein per day.

2. Strength training

After nutrition, consistent strength training is the next important factor in physique change—and maintaining that change once you’ve achieved it. Many people assume that cardiovascular training will have the biggest effect on changing their physiques. Cardio can certainly play a part, especially if fat loss is your goal, but strength training gives you much more bang for your buck.

Strength training, including working out with resistance bands, is much more effective than cardio at building muscle. Since muscle is more metabolically active than fat (i.e., our bodies require more energy to maintain muscle compared to maintaining fat), the more muscle you have, the more energy you’ll burn on a daily basis—even when you’re not working out.

When people talk about wanting to achieve a “toned” look, what they mean is building muscle and losing fat. Muscles do two things: they shrink when they’re not used, or they grow when they’re challenged. The concept of “toning” means developing muscle, and then losing fat, if necessary, to reveal it. Cardio can help you lose fat, but it won’t build much muscle.

Ideally, your workout routine would involve both strength training and cardio. Make strength training your priority, and fit in cardio when you can. My own weekly training schedule, for example, includes five 45-minute strength training sessions, with a 10- or 15-minute jump rope session after one of them, plus three 30-minute swim workouts and a hike most weekends.

3. Sleep and recovery

Proper recovery is essential to making progress with your strength and physique. Tissue repair and muscle growth happen mostly while we sleep, so it’s important to prioritize getting enough shut-eye. Put another way: your muscles don’t get stronger while you’re training. They get stronger while you’re sleeping!

4. Cardio and conditioning

The “cherry on top” of the physique change hierarchy is cardio and conditioning. As mentioned, cardiovascular activity can help you lose fat, although it’ll have a smaller overall impact compared to your nutrition. Cardio is important for heart and lung health, and having good cardiovascular conditioning can help you to recover more quickly from strength training sets.

Conditioning typically combines strength with cardio, and usually involves anaerobic (high intensity, short duration) activity.

The US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology both recommend, for all adults, a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

Karina Inkster is a fitness coach, author, and podcast host. Ms. Inkster’s award-winning online programs offer vegan fitness and nutrition coaching to clients around the world. She’s the author of “Resistance Band Workouts: 50 Exercises for Strength Training at Home or On the Go,” “Foam Rolling: 50 Exercises for Massage, Injury Prevention, and Core Strength,” and “The Vegan Athlete: A Complete Guide to a Healthy, Plant-Based, Active Lifestyle.” Ms. Inkster holds a master’s degree in gerontology, specializing in health and aging, is a writer for several magazines, and hosts the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast.