Muscle Strengthening For Seniors
By: Linda Cornett, M.S., M.D.
Changing the oil every 3000 miles is part of car ownership. If you follow the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual, your car will hopefully give you years of service without many repairs. If your body came with an owner’s manual for your golden years, what would it say?
For most older adults, the primary goal is to maintain as much independence as possible. While you can’t control every factor that effects your independence, you can do some simple exercises that will make a big difference.
If you are doing no exercise right now, your first activity should be muscle strengthening. For those of you who are staying active by walking, biking or other activities, making your muscles stronger will not only keep you doing the activities you love, it will help you do them better! Many people - young and old - are reluctant to strength train. Some may fear the development of big muscles while others may be intimidated by all the different equipment available. The good news is that you don’t need expensive equipment or complex routines to reap the benefits of strength training.
No matter how old you are, your body can still increase its strength and muscle mass. And muscles are more important than you may realize. For diabetics, more muscle means better control of blood sugar. If osteoporosis is a concern, strength training will not only preserve bone density, it will increase it.
If your health problems are made more serious by excess weight, adding lean muscle to your body will increase the number of calories your body burns, even while you are resting, and will make it less convenient for you to store body fat. That’s just a sample of the reasons why strength training should be at the foundation of any exercise program.
There are many wonderful group exercise programs available for seniors that specifically teach strength training and I encourage you to inquire about what is available in your area. However, all you need to start is a high backed chair for balance. Before you begin, there are a few basic rules you need to remember:
Always get your doctor’s permission to start any new exercise program and follow his/her recommendations. Listen to your body. If a movement causes you pain, stop and consult your physician. Breathe out on the hardest part of the movement - never hold your breath! Always move slowly and in control - not only to prevent injury, but to help you perform the exercises more efficiently and see the results sooner!
Go get your chair and start with these exercises:
Exercise 1: Standing in back of the chair with one hand on the back of the chair for balance, slowly bend your knees as if you were going to sit in an imaginary chair. At first, you should only squat a few inches before standing back up. Remember to put most of your weight into your heels and keep your spine tall, looking straight ahead. Stay with these little squats until you can do twelve without difficulty. Gradually work at going a little lower until you are sitting in your imaginary chair (bending knees no more than 90 degrees).
Exercise 2: The next exercise is wall push-ups. Stand facing a wall with your feet about two feet from the wall. Place your hands on the wall at shoulder height and shoulder distance apart from each other. Slowly bend your elbows so that your head moves toward the wall. If you are beginning, you may want to go only part way before you straighten your arms and return to the starting position. If you can do twelve wall push-ups in good form, you can gradually challenge yourself by moving your feet a little farther from the wall.
Exercise 3: You get to sit for the last exercise! Start with both feet resting flat on the floor. Next, raise one leg off the chair, hold for three seconds, and return to start. Repeat the same exercise on the other leg. To challenge yourself, you can straighten your leg at the top of the movement (lift on count one, straighten on count two, bend on count three and rest on count four). As with all the other exercises, you should be able to do twelve lifts on each leg before you increase the difficulty.
There are other exercises you should include as you progress, but these will give you a good start. It’s important to perform these exercises every other day - always have one day of rest between the days you strength train. You should start to notice significant improvement in your strength levels in four to six weeks.