Strength and Power Training for Older Adults

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. Strength and Power Training for Older Adults answers your strength training questions and helps you develop a program that's right for you.

Strength and Power Training for Older Adults Cover

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When it comes to exercise, strength training rarely gets the attention it deserves. The fact is strength training is equally important to aerobics. Its often overshadowed by aerobic exercise, the kind that makes your heart beat faster and your lungs work harder. The cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercise can add years to your life — strength training can make those years fuller and more rewarding.

By conditioning your muscles, strength training gives you the power and agility you need to stay fit, active, and independent. It protects your ability to do everyday tasks and many of the things you love to do.

Strength and Power Training for Older Adults, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, will introduce you to workouts that you can easily fit into your schedule. With just two sessions per week, you’ll fortify your muscles and bones, add tone to your body, and confidence to your life.

These are exercises you can tailor to your fitness and goals. The workouts are designed to motivate you and help you build upon your success.

The report provides complete workouts for strength and power as well as for stretching and balancing. You’ll find 25 instructively-illustrated exercises. Plus you’ll get tips for avoiding injuries, charting your progress, buying gear, keeping sessions fun, and much more!

So get moving! Order this Special Health Report now!

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Jonathan Bean, M.D., M.S., M.P.H., Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School, and Medical Director, Spaulding Cambridge Outpatient Center, and Walter Frontera, M.D., Ph.D., Dean, Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Professor of Physiology, University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, and Lecturer, Harvard Medical School. 2015.

  • The basics: Strength training, power training, and your muscles
    • Strength training: A traditional approach
    • Power training: A newer approach
    • A look at muscles and movement
  • What strength and power training can do for you
    • Health benefits of power training
    • Health benefits of strength training
    • Easing arthritis pain
    • Reducing heart disease risk
    • Slowing osteoporosis.
    • Helping manage diabetes
    • Other conditions
  • Getting set up
    • Buying basic equipment
    • Investing wisely in large equipment
    • Personal trainers, physical therapists, and physiatrists.
  • Safety first
    • Questions for your doctor
    • Tips for avoiding injury
  • Designing your program
    • Strength training questions and answers
    • Current exercise recommendations
    • Your workout calendar
  • Workout I: A strong beginning.
    • Performing the exercises
  • Workout II: Stepping it up a notch.
    • Performing the exercises
  • Balancing and stretching exercises
    • Balancing 
    • Stretching
  • Resources
  • Glossary

Age and muscle loss

As the years pass, muscle mass in the body generally shrinks, and strength and power decline. The process begins earlier than you might think. Sarcopenia— defined as age-related muscle loss—can begin at around age 35 and occurs at a rate of 1% to 2% a year for the typical person. After age 60, it can accelerate to 3% a year. The loss may be mild, moderate, or severe—or muscles can remain in the normal range. But on average, adults who don’t do regular strength training can expect to lose 4 to 6 pounds of muscle per decade. (And most people don’t see the number on the scale going down, which means they are replacing that muscle with fat.) Fast-twitch fibers, which provide bursts of power, are lost at a greater rate than slow-twitch fibers, which means you’re not only growing weaker but also getting slower.

Weak muscles hasten the loss of independence, putting everyday activities out of reach—activities such as walking, cleaning, shopping, and even dressing. They hinder your ability to cope with and recover from an illness or injury. Disability is 1.5 to 4.6 times higher in older people with moderate to severe sarcopenia than in those with normal muscle mass. Weak muscles also make it harder to balance properly when moving or even standing still—and loss of power compounds the problem. Perhaps it’s not surprising that one in every three adults ages 65 and older falls each year. Some of these falls can have dire consequences, including bone fractures, admittance to long-term care facilities, and even death from complications. According to the CDC, these spills lead to more than 800,000 hospitalizations a year. But strength and power training can help. People with stronger muscles are less likely to fall and, when they do take a tumble, less likely to sustain a serious injury.

Loss of muscle strength and mass aren’t the only factors that contribute to age-related declines in function and mobility. Mitochondria—the energy-producing “power plants” inside cells—decrease in number and efficiency. Similarly, the nerve-signaling system that recruits muscle fibers for tasks deteriorates with age and lack of use.

While it’s tempting to attribute all of these changes to aging alone, disuse of muscles plays a bigger role than many people suspect. Studies suggest that strength and power training can help reverse these effects and restore muscle function.

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