Experts Recommend Progressive Resistance Training for Older Adults to Build Muscle, Increase Strength

April 13, 2011
Not only can adults fight the battle of strength and muscle loss that comes with age, they can even grow stronger with the right kind of exercise, according to experts at the University of Michigan Health System.

“Resistance exercise is a great way to increase lean muscle tissue and strength capacity so that people can function more readily in daily life,” explained Mark Peterson, Ph.D., a research fellow in the U-M Physical Activity and Exercise Intervention Research Laboratory at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

In progressive resistance training, the amount of weight used and the frequency and duration of training sessions is altered over time to accommodate an individual’s improvements. Through resistance training, adults can improve their ability to stand up out of a chair, walk across the floor or climb a flight of stairs – anything that requires manipulating their own body mass through a full range of motions.

Normally, adults who are sedentary beyond age 50 can expect muscle loss of up to 0.4 pounds a year.

“That only worsens as people age. But even earlier in adulthood – the 30s, 40s and 50s – you can begin to see declines if you do not engage in any strengthening activities,” Peterson said. “Our analyses of current research show that the most important factor in somebody’s function is their strength capacity. No matter what age an individual is, they can experience significant strength improvement with progressive resistance exercise even into the eighth and ninth decades of life,” he added.

A review article by U-M researchers, published in The American Journal of Medicine, shows that after an average of 18-20 weeks of progressive resistance training, an adult can add 2.42 pounds of lean muscle to their body mass and increases their overall strength by 25-30 percent.

Recommendations for Adults Over 50

According to Peterson, anyone over age 50 strongly should consider participating in resistance exercise. A good way for people to start on such a program, especially for those who are relatively sedentary (after getting permission from their doctor to do so) is to use their body mass as a load for various exercises.

Exercises that use your own body weight include squats, standing up out of a chair, modified push-ups and lying hip bridges, as well as non-traditional exercises that progress through a full range of motion, such as Thai Chi, Pilates and yoga.

After getting accustomed to these activities, older adults can move on to more advanced resistance training in a fitness facility. A certified trainer or fitness professional who has experience with special populations can help with the transition. Before beginning any fitness routine, however, Peterson advises asking the trainer whether he or she has experience working with aging adults.

“Working out at age 20 is not the same as at age 70. A fitness professional who understands those differences is important for your safety. In addition, current recommendations suggest that an older individual participate in strengthening exercise 2 days per week,” Peterson said. “Based on the results of our studies, I would suggest that be thought of as the minimum.”

Gaining Strength

As resistance training progresses and weights and machines are introduced, Peterson recommends incorporating full body exercises and exercises that use more than one joint and muscle group at a time, such as the leg press, chest press and rows. These are safer and more effective in building muscle mass.

“You should also keep in mind the need for increased resistance and intensity of your training to continue building muscle mass and strength,” he pointed out.

“We firmly believe based on this research that progressive resistance training should be encouraged among healthy older adults to help minimize the loss of muscle mass and strength as they age,” Peterson concluded.

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