Posted: 7/4/2022 6:28:33 PM
Modified: 7/4/2022 6:25:54 PM
Fifty years ago I was in the audience when the famous back specialist, Dr. Hans Krauss, was asked if a person with back pain should stay in bed. Kraus frowned, shook his head, and said, “If you do that, you take a healthy person with a bad back, put them in bed, and then bring out a sick person with a bad back.” In the last 50 years, technology has tended to put us in bed and deprive us of from the need to move. Inactivity creeps up on us, and with it a proportional loss of strength and functionality. Normal activities become more difficult. The sofa looks lower and the stairs steeper. Energy fades. The combination of aging and inactivity leads to a sharp decline in functionality.
Regardless of lifestyle, you need strength to function. Every little thing we do, like carrying groceries, picking up the trash, or weeding the garden, requires strength. If you are weak, these activities put too much strain on you, leaving you tired and unable to enjoy the activities. And what if you want to live on a higher level, to keep doing the things you love? You will need strength.
Ask yourself how you want to live when you get old. Are you ready to give up all those things you enjoyed as a youngster and watch others play? Are you content to watch the grass grow, or do you have to mow it yourself? Yes, we get thinner as we age, but we can reduce this deviation. Maintaining and increasing muscle strength is one of the keys to your well-being, to your independence. The decision to change requires a conscious choice. You can increase the power and it’s not that hard, but it does involve commitment.
The good news is that it’s never too late. Several years ago I began a research program on the effects of aerobic and strength training on older women. Seventy women came to the gym three days a week for two years. Women aged 26-75 were assessed before and after. It was no surprise that all the women got healthier, but we also learned that the oldest women changed just as much as the youngest. The older women increased their strength by 20-30 percent, finishing as strong as women 20 years younger when they started. Enhancement and age are not related. So when someone says they’re too old to strength train, I know they’re wrong.
We often think of aerobic training as health training for adults. Sure, walking, biking, and swimming are great and you should do them, but these activities don’t make you stronger. Strength training is different. A recent review of 663 studies on strength training for adults showed huge improvement in everything from arthritis to osteoporosis. Strength training works, improves body functionality, balance and mobility. Strength training supports our independence and psychosocial well-being. A stronger body allows us to do more, increases our confidence.
You can develop your own home workout, but I think the easiest way to start strength training is to go to the gym. Yes, you have to pay, but the trade-off is worth it. Gyms can be quite social and it’s a good idea to bring a friend with you. If you’ve never worked out in a gym before, the variety of equipment can be a little overwhelming. You may need help at first, but you will quickly learn to take care of yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Most gyms have an array of resistance machines designed to strengthen specific parts of the body. Don’t plan to use all the machines. You only need about six to get a decent workout. Focus on those exercises that use multiple joints. Aim for about 10 continuous repetitions, followed by a rest of about two minutes, then repeat. There is no magic number; all work. Make sure you include at least one leg exercise. Once you learn the routine, you can do this in less than 30 minutes. Twice a week works, but go three times if you want.
Eventually, you may want to expand your workout, try some free weights or bodyweight exercises. Plan to do some standing exercises. Exercises in a standing position are more functional because they reproduce the normal stresses on the body. This training improves your balance and helps prevent falls. Sufficient muscle strength is the key to independence. It’s never too late to start.
Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sports science after 52 years of teaching at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments on sports, exercise and sports medicine. He can be reached at [email protected]