Strength training: the best approach for older adults.
Strength training isn't just for young people looking to bulk up--in fact it can make a big difference to your life as an older adult, since aging causes muscle mass to shrink. Studies show that the decline in strength that results from this can be prevented with strength training. "Not only will this give you the muscle power you need to stay mobile and carry out daily tasks without tiring," confirms David Thomas MD, professor of medicine and rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai, "it also is important for balance, which is compromised by weak muscles, and for bone density, which also can be impacted by age."
Using weights Ideally you should start off with 1 or 2 lb weights, but to reap the most rewards from strength training, you should aim to gradually increase to 5 lb weights. "As a rule, when you can comfortably perform eight to 12 reps without any muscle tiredness, you should increase the weight," Dr. Thomas advises. Dumbbells are versatile, but you may also want to consider purchasing ankle weights that incorporate pockets so you can start off light and increase the load as your strength builds. You also can use your own body-weight: for example, wall pushups.
Interval approach Warm up for five to 10 minutes before you start, with simple stretching exercises and by marching on the spot. Move smoothly through each exercise, and if you haven't done strength training before, use an interval approach, alternating bouts of activity with rest breaks. "It's also important that your muscles have time to rest in between strength-training sessions," Dr. Thomas cautions, "so plan for a single set of eight to 112 repetitions of each exercise, performed on non-consecutive days of the week."
Safety issues If you have arthritis, it's a good idea to consult a licensed physical therapist or personal trainer who has experience of working with people who have this condition--for the latter, look for someone who is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine, or the American Council on Exercise. "He or she can work with you to design a tailored exercise regime that works your muscles without placing your joints under stress," note Dr. Thomas. "Schedule your strength-training sessions for times when your joints are less stiff and painful--for example, you may feel sufficiently loose and mobile in the afternoon--and don't push past a comfortable range of motion. With your doctor's approval, you may want to take pain medication 30 minutes before you train."
The American Heart Association (AHA) says that strength training is safe for low risk cardiac patients whose heart disease is stable, and who haven't recently undergone angioplasty (surgery to widen narrowed arteries). However, the AHA cautions that high-risk patients--for example, those with unstable angina (chest pain due to an insufficient blood supply to the heart), uncontrolled hypertension or heart rhythm disorders, and severe heart valve disease--avoid strength training.
"Even if you are in good health, if you experience chest pain, breathlessness or wheezing that doesn't ease within a few minutes, and/or faintness, stop exercising and call your doctor for advice," Dr. Thomas adds.