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Strength Training in Later Years: A Guide to Getting Started

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Strength Training in Later Years: A Guide to Getting Started

Apr 17, 2024

Lifting weights and resistance training is not just for young people. Bradley Ruple, PhD, discusses the health benefits of strength training for seniors and shares practical starting points for older individuals. These effective, low-impact exercises are tailored for beginners looking to maintain muscle mass, improve bone density, and enhance overall independence.

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    Interviewer: One of the keys to successful aging is activity. And one activity that pays huge dividends is strength training. I would argue that strength and strength-based exercises are one of the most critical components of aging successfully.

    Dr. Bradley Ruple is an expert on exercise and muscle physiology, with an emphasis on the adaptations to exercise and aging. And today we're going to talk about the numerous benefits of strength training and what you need to know to get started capitalizing on those benefits of resistance training, even if you've never done it before.

    Benefits of Strength Training for Older Adults

    Let's start with the big picture here, and I would call this the motivation, the reasons why people who are older should consider strength training. How can that help somebody age well? What are the benefits?

    Dr. Ruple: Man, there are so many benefits, it's kind of hard to pick just a couple, but especially in the older generations, being able to maintain healthy bone density and maintaining strength and muscle mass are definitely the biggest benefits. As soon as you start losing muscle mass and strength, that's one of the first things that goes is your ability to maintain your activities of daily living. And as soon as those start to go, that's when you start losing your independence, and that's when a lot of people either need the in-home health or they need assistance to do just daily things.

    Types of Strength Training: From Bodyweight to Free Weights

    Interviewer: What kind of strength training are we talking about when we're talking about getting the benefits of improved flexibility, you know, increasing your bone density, making sure that you can still be mobile, reducing the risk of falls? What do we have to do? Do you have to go to the gym and lift the free weights, like you see the young people do? Or is there a better way?

    Dr. Ruple: Any type of strength training. Especially for a novice, just starting off, any type of bodyweight, calisthenics, think pushups, or even if you can't do a pushup, you can do a wall pushup, there's some sort of resistance to it, or body weight squat, lunges.

    Once you start feeling more comfortable with that, or you get the good form and feel safe to do it, then that's when you can start moving forward with either free weights, bands, or kettlebells. Again, for a very, very beginner or brand-new person who's never even seen a weight room before, I think the most important thing is getting kind of familiar with these exercises so that you're doing them safely.

    If you just did body weight for two weeks, as long as you are consistent in terms of doing it daily or weekly, and then as long as you are consistently kind of increasing the workload, so each workload is difficult or each training day is difficult, then you'll start seeing these adaptations.

    As long as you just keep that up, you're going to get stronger, so then you can go from body weight to the free weights or the machines, like you were saying. The machines are great because they kind of take the guesswork and the form out of it because most of the time you can only move it in a single direction.

    Getting Started: Overcoming Resistance and Setting Goals

    Interviewer: Right. I particularly like machines for that. I think that's great for beginners personally. Let's talk about that person who has never exercised before. I think of some people in my life who have never really done any resistance training, which is another way to talk about strength training. What you're trying to do is overcome a resistance, your muscles are overcoming a resistance, and that could be gravity, that could be the bands that you talked about, the kettlebells, the free weights. Where does that person start? Can they just start by doing it on their own at home? Should they go talk to a doctor, or do you go to a physical trainer? Are there other resources?

    Consulting with Healthcare Professionals

    Dr. Ruple: Yeah, so first and foremost, especially for older individuals, if they've never done any type of training, I would definitely advise seeing a doctor before starting a new exercise program. After that, if they kind of clear you, the next step is going to... most gyms have personal trainers, that was the word I was looking for. Or with the personal trainers, there are gyms that specialize in elder either fitness or elder fitness classes. I know people go to school for this, right? So if you go in and you talk with the trainers, you start to kind of recognize who their demographic population are. There are people that go to school to specialize in we'll say, functional aging specialists. I think those ones would be ones that if I was an older individual or if I were to tell my mom or grandma, this is who I would look for, mainly because, again, they've gone to school, they've done the training for this. So it's kind of trying to find the right match, that they have training history, they have the knowledge, and that they have similar goals or they can recognize your goals so you guys can work together instead of kind of working separately.

    Personal Trainers and Specialized Programs

    Interviewer: Where could somebody find some guidance if they're new to exercise and they want to start? I've found that helping somebody get started can be the most challenging part. So regardless if they decide to start at home or if they want to go to a gym or a place that has some exercise equipment, where would you start somebody?

    Dr. Ruple: I think there are kind of two ways you can do this. And one of them again is, "Hey, I want to kind of take my brain work out of it. I just want to go to someone, they tell me what to do." And again, that's the route of the personal trainer. You go somewhere where they have a reputable trainer, they're accredited, they're all kind of this where, again, you can go there and trust their knowledge. Again, look for kind of those buzzwords in terms of aging specialists, elderly training, and things like that. Versus if you don't want to go that route, it's too expensive, the timing doesn't work out, whatever, thankfully everyone has access to Google or even YouTube, right? I feel everyone is recording workout videos and things like that. So first off, again, make sure it's a trustworthy site.

    Online Resources

    So if it's a YouTube, find a personal trainer that, I want to say like, the American Heart Association, NIH or National Institute of Health, there are multiple kinds of accredited websites that if you were to go on Google guarantee there'd be 5,000 different workout videos.

    Group Fitness Classes

    One added thing would be trying to find exercise classes. So there are a lot of places that do group fitness classes, especially for older individuals or novice individuals. So, again, that kind of is a good way to get your foot in the door in terms of learning what to do, what to expect, and how to safely do it. And then the best part about that is for these people that aren't getting outside or socializing as much, I think this is a great spot for them to do it. And then that also has some accountability to it, where if you meet a new friend there, if you don't go to the next workout class, they might be a little disappointed in you and then you might be letting them down.

    Interviewer: Yeah. They're like, "Where were you yesterday?" It's amazing how much that can, you know, get you to show up on a day you don't want to show up.

    Dr. Ruple: Exactly.

    Interviewer: Well, thank you very much for sharing your expertise and your knowledge. I hope that we have helped somebody decide, "You know what, I'm going to go take that first step. I'm going to go start, you know, doing some strength training twice a week, even if it's just bodyweight exercise. I'm going to look up some exercises on the web, and I'm going to give that a shot. And I'm just going to stick with it. I'm going to be consistent."