8 simple steps to a healthier, stronger you

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Strength and Power Training for Older Adults
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Studies attest that strength training, as well as aerobic exercise, can help you manage and sometimes prevent conditions as varied as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis. It can also protect vitality, make everyday tasks more manageable, and help you maintain a healthy weight. This report answers your strength training questions and helps you develop a program that's right for you.

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When you hear the term "strength training," perhaps you envision a bodybuilder with bulging biceps and rippling abdominal muscles. However, strength and power training can benefit people of all ages and athletic abilities — whether you are 40 or 85, well toned or unable to rise from a wheelchair without assistance. And while strength training can leave your body looking leaner and fitter, it need not make you look muscle-bound.

Studies attest that strength training, as well as aerobic exercise, can help you manage and sometimes prevent conditions as varied as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis. But chief among its health benefits is its ability to protect vitality and make everyday tasks more manageable. Over the years, muscle tissue, bone density, and strength dwindle. So, too, does muscle power.

These changes can make once-simple tasks like climbing a flight of stairs or carrying a bag of groceries difficult. By focusing on strengthening muscles you actually use to walk up stairs, rise from a chair, or lift laundry or groceries, the following exercises can help you target the specific muscles and moves needed for the tasks of daily life (or a sport) rather than just building up muscles in general.

The exercises

Before beginning the workout, complete a five- to 10-minute warm-up, such as walking briskly. As you perform each of these exercises, breathe out when you are lifting or pushing and breathe in as you release the muscle. Rest for one to two minutes between sets, and aim to complete two to three sets of each exercise.

1. Standing calf raise

Exercises the calf muscles

standing calf raise

Stand with your feet flat on the floor. Hold on to the back of your chair for balance. Raise yourself up on tiptoe, as high as possible. Hold briefly, then lower yourself. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

2. Chair stand

Exercises the muscles of the abdomen, hips, front thighs, and buttocks

Chair Stand

Place a small pillow at the back of your chair and position the chair so that the back of it is resting against a wall. Sit at the front of the chair, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and slightly apart. Lean back on the pillow in a half-reclining position with your arms crossed and your hands on your shoulders. Keeping your back and shoulders straight, raise your upper body forward until you are sitting upright. Stand up slowly, using your hands as little as possible. Slowly sit back down. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

3. Stair climbing

Exercises the muscles of the front thighs and buttocks

Stair Climbing

Holding on to the handrail for balance if necessary, walk up and down a flight of at least 10 stairs at a pace that feels comfortable. Pause at the top only if you need to do so. Rest when you reach the bottom. Repeat four times.

4. Hip extension

Exercises the muscles of the buttocks and back thighs

Hip Extension

While wearing ankle weights, stand 12 inches behind a sturdy chair. Holding on to the back of the chair for balance, bend your trunk forward 45 degrees. Slowly raise your right leg straight out behind you. Lift it as high as possible without bending your knee. Pause. Slowly lower the leg. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Repeat with your left leg. Rest and repeat the sets.

5. Seated bridge

Exercises the muscles of the back thighs, back, and buttocks

Seated Bridge

Sit slightly forward in a chair with your hands on the armrests. Your feet should be flat on the floor and slightly apart, and your upper body should be upright (don't lean forward). Using your arms for balance only, slowly raise your buttocks off the chair until you are nearly standing, with your knees bent. Pause. Slowly sit back down. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

6. Biceps curl

Exercises the front upper arm muscles

Biceps Curl

Sit in a chair. Hold weights down at your sides with your palms inward. Slowly bend one elbow, lifting the weight toward your upper chest. As you lift, keep your elbow close to your side and rotate your palm so it faces your shoulder. Pause. Slowly lower your arm, rotating it back again so you finish with your palm facing your thighs. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Repeat with your other arm. Rest and repeat the sets.

7. Triceps dip

Exercises the muscles of the back upper arms, chest, and shoulders

Triceps Dip

Put a chair with armrests up against a wall. Sit in the chair and put your feet together flat on the floor. Lean forward a bit while keeping your shoulders and back straight. Bend your elbows and place your hands on the armrests of the chair, so they are in line with your torso. Pressing downward on your hands, try to lift yourself up a few inches by straightening out your arms. Raise your upper body and thighs, but keep your feet in contact with the floor. Pause. Slowly release until you're sitting back down again. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

8. Curl-up*

Exercises the central abdominal muscles

Curl Up

Lie on your back on a mat. Put your hands beneath the small of your back and bend both knees to help stabilize your spine. Slowly raise your head and shoulders just a few inches off the floor. Pause. Slowly lower your head and shoulders. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

*If you have osteoporosis, talk to your doctor before trying this exercise. He or she may recommend that you avoid it.

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Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A practical, easy guide for healthy, happy living
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Get your copy of Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A practical, easy guide for healthy, happy living

All of us probably know some areas where we could boost our health and happiness — perhaps by exercising more, eating healthier, learning stress management techniques, or nipping a bad habit in the bud — but making a change can be daunting. It doesn’t have to be, though. This report will show you how to incorporate simple changes into your life that can reap big rewards.

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What can I do to stop smoking if the "standard" treatments don't work for me?

Q. I am an 84-year-old woman who recently had stents placed in two coronary arteries. The doctors, of course, told me to quit smoking. I told them, as I have told all of my other doctors, that I have tried to quit but just can't. I have tried the patch and Chantix, but neither worked. Support groups aren't for me. I have cut back, but that's as far as so-called willpower goes. Hearing over and over again that I need to quit leaves me feeling depressed and weak. Is there some news about current or future approaches that might give me and others like me some hope?

A. Before I answer your question, let me congratulate you for having tried to quit smoking and urge you to try again. It often takes smokers several "tries" before one takes hold.

As you have discovered, nicotine is a highly addictive substance. For most smokers, "willpower" alone is not enough. Fortunately, smokers today have a number of tools to fight tobacco addiction. Quit-smoking aids include nicotine replacement (nicotine patches, gums, lozenges, inhalers, and sprays), bupropion (Zyban, Wellbutrin), varenicline (Chantix), counseling and behavior-change therapy, and social support. None are miracle workers.

You mentioned having tried the nicotine patch. Dr. Nancy Rigotti, director of the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, said that some smokers find success by adding to the patch a short-acting nicotine replacement product, like nicotine gum, lozenges, or an inhaler, to handle breakthrough cravings the patch can't counteract.

You also mentioned that Chantix didn't help you. Some people find that Zyban works better for them than Chantix. Researchers are testing whether combining Zyban or Chantix with nicotine replacement is a safe and effective treatment for smoking cessation.

You also said that support groups aren't for you. You don't have to join a group to get support. You can get free, helpful support from the comfort of your home by calling the national quit line at 800-QUIT-NOW. For some people, support is the missing piece of the solution, says Dr. Rigotti.

Several new treatments are under development and investigation. On the medication front, a class of drugs called cannabinoid receptor antagonists may someday be used to help smokers quit. Also in the development pipeline are several anti-nicotine vaccines. They prompt the body to make antibodies to nicotine. When nicotine enters the bloodstream, these antibodies bind to it. The resulting nicotine-antibody complex is much too large to cross into the brain, rendering the nicotine incapable of turning on the brain's nicotine receptors. In theory, this will help break the habit by denying the smoker the pleasurable feelings he or she normally gets from smoking. If cannabinoid receptor antagonists or vaccines pan out as safe and effective smoking cessation aids — and that is a big if — it will be years before they are on the market.

Please don't wait for treatments that may never materialize. You have already made a good start by cutting back. If you are serious about taking the next step, work with your doctor or someone who specializes in smoking cessation to figure out a plan tailored for you. I hope this answer doesn't make you feel weak, but gives you some hope and power.

— Thomas Lee, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter