Ever since I began coaching the basic barbell exercises, I advocated that everyone should do some kind of strength training program. And by everybody, I mean everybody: teenagers, seniors, men, women, and everyone in between. Having experienced first-hand the benefits of basic strength training and watching my clients get stronger, I know that no other kind of physical training has the same broad and unparalleled effects. Your performance as a competitive athlete improves regardless of your sport. Everyday tasks get easier. You put on some muscle, look better, and just feel better.

We can all reasonably expect to live longer than any previous generation. Life expectancy continues to steadily increase thanks to great improvements in medicine at both the early and end stages of life. But a topic not often discussed is the quality of life at those end stages in particular. Longevity has its place and we all want to stay on Earth for as long as possible, but don’t we also want to live as well and as productively as we can?

Spencer Irvin coaches 70 year-old Bob Griffin through a set of deadlifts.

 

Too often sickness and a loss of independence plagues the golden years of one’s life. Some diseases are beyond our control while some can be treated or prevented with just some effort. Strength training with barbells is the absolute best way to stave off those end of life maladies. Here’s five ways that strength training can benefit older adults to help live full, rewarding, independent, and productive lives:

 

  1. Improved Bone Health
    Bone health becomes an enormous concern as we age. You likely have heard about osteoporosis where bones become brittle and can easily break. Few people know that they themselves have osteoporosis until a break occurs, and even fewer people know they have osteopenia — a condition where bone density is lower than normal and can lead to osteoporosis. A proper strength training program maintains the bone mass you already have and multiple studies show strength training can increase bone mass in older adults. Not only can you avoid osteoporosis, you could even reverse it as you get stronger!
  2. Better flexibility
    Joint begin to lose their range of motion as we age making the simplest tasks more difficult such as reaching or picking something up off the ground. That not only makes those normal tasks harder but the more limited a joint’s range of motion the more it become susceptible to injury. Numerous studies have shown that training improves flexibility far greater than aerobic exercise especially in older adults.
  3. Improved balance
    Ability to control your balance also diminishes with age. For older adults, a loss of balance and a subsequent fall can be catastrophic. Falls typically lead to hip fractures, and 80% of older adults that suffer hip fracture never regain their functional status from before the fracture. Stronger legs significantly improve balance in the elderly and help prevent falls.

    73 year-old Pat Hitchens-Bonow at the start of a set of overhead presses.

  4. Heart health
    Kratos Strength trainee Dr. Robert Bonow co-authored a paper in 2004 comparing the effects of a “polypill” — a single dose of multiple medications — versus the effects of exercise on heart health. As it turns out, exercise can be just as effective as drug therapy is reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
    Research shows more intense bouts of exercise leads to greater cardiovascular adaptations even in people who already suffered a heart attack. One study from Finland even showed that the heart began to repair the damage done by the heart attack after a program of high-intensity exercise!
  5. Better brain function
    Along with the decline of the body’s architecture comes a loss of cognitive function. The physical adaptations to strength training help fight the loss of brain tissue and dementia. Much like in the case of cardiovascular benefits, more intense exercise like resistance training has a greater effect in slowing progressive neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

91 year-old Virginia Rizan, aka “Gus”, at the top of a modified deadlift. She began strength training at 90 years old and experienced significant quality of life improvements as she got stronger.

Both the scientific research and anecdotal evidence overwhelming show that exercise significantly improves quality of life for older adults. Exercise goes a long way in mitigating and in some cases preventing the maladies that ail older adults. We also see that the more intense and demanding the exercise the better the results. Specifically, heavy resistance training does the best job of tackling bone loss, cardiovascular disease, loss of balance, loss of flexibility, and cognitive diseases.

As the older clients at our gym make steady strength improvements, their life outside the gym improves as well. Aches and pains become easier to manage or outright disappear, they can accomplish everyday tasks with greater ease, and life just gets a little easier. You can never be too strong and it’s never too late to start developing your strength!

 

For more on strength training for older adults, grab a copy of  Dr. Jonathon Sullivan’s book The Barbell Prescription.

References:
-Dornermann et al, “Effects of high-intensity resistance exercise on bone mineral density” (1997)
-Kemmler et al, “Benefits of 2 years of intense exercise on bone density, physical fitness, and blood lipids” (2004)
-Overturf and Kravitz, “Strength Training and Flexibility: Is There Compatibility?”
-Lee and Park, “Balance Improvement by Strength Training for the Elderly” (2013)
-Lindsay R, Osteoporosis (1992)
-Fatouros et al, “The Effects of Strength Training, Cardiovascular Training and Their Combination on Flexibility of Inactive Older Adults” (2002)
-Morton et al, “Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength” (2011)
-Franklin, Bonow et al, “A cardioprotective “polypill”?” (2004)
-Wisloff et al, “Superior Cardiovascular Effect of Aerobic Interval Training” (2007)
-Voss et al, “Exercise, brain, and cognition” (1985)
-Ahlskog, “Does vigorous exercise have a neuroprotective effect in Parkinson disease?” (2011)

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