Pumping iron isn't just for the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world. More and more doctors are recommending resistance training for people of all ages. Done regularly, weightlifting can help offset the frailty and diseases of old age which once seemed inevitable.
Strength exercises such as weightlifting is just one of four types of exercise recommended by The National Institute on Aging, along with endurance activities, balance exercises and stretching. A study funded by the institute showed that lifting weights benefits people even into their 90s.
Besides building muscle, the benefits of lifting weights include stronger bones and increased metabolism and energy. These pluses translate into greater mobility and independence for older adults, with a significant reduction in bone injuries and diseases.
Men and women lose bone density with age. For women this can lead to osteoperosis and both sexes can suffer fractures and other debilitating injuries. Joan Hatfield, a 50-year-old personal trainer and health and fitness technology instructor at Renton Technical College in Renton, Washington, says, "For the older adult it's very important that they do some form of resistance training to prevent loss of bone density."
Hatfield works with many clients who've lead sedentary lives. "We see people who've had a lot of loss of muscle strength, people who've spent a lot of time sitting at a desk for their jobs." She recommends starting off slowly, doing just a few reps at first. She also cautions that you won't necessarily see results the first eight weeks, but the changes are happening. "They definitely come back stronger each time they come back to the training session," she says.
Many of the physical changes of weightlifting take place in your brain. "During the first six to eight weeks of training there will be neurological changes, because the muscle does nothing unless it's activated by the motor neurons that enervates it," says Hatfield. "These neural changes in the first weeks are where a lot of the strength gain occurs, developing these neural pathways that were never there or have been deteriorating through lack of activity."
Exercise physiologist Lynn Millar adds, "It's the connection between the brain and the muscle that actually becomes more efficient."
Bonnie Orr has been active her whole life, and hasn't let turning 70 slow her down. She added weightlifting to her exercise regimen two years ago and says, "I have more energy and I feel a lot better. It's a thing you start and you never want to quit."
Frank Morrison, 79, tells a more dramatic story of the benefits of weightlifting. "The first time I came here 15 years ago, I was so out of shape, I did a few exercises on the Nautilus, and I had to lay down. I've now worked up to where I can spend an hour lifting weights." A hernia operation did nothing to slow Morrison down but then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. On the advice of his doctor, Morrison simply kept up his usual routine of good nutrition and exercise and after three months, the spot on lung has shrunk to practically nothing.
Orr and Morrison work out at their local health club thanks to a program called Silver Sneakers, which is free for seniors over 65 on MediCare and is available through health clubs throughout the country. The special Silver Sneakers workout routine includes stretching and weightlifting.
Check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine, especially if you are anemic or have bone or joint injuries.
As you age, lifting weights may not result in muscles as dramatic as a Mr. Universe, but the unseen benefits will have you feeling on top of the world.