It was once common wisdom that older adults who want to improve their health should focus on aerobic exercise — like cycling and swimming, instead of strength training, which was thought to be dangerous. In 2000, all that changed, however, and the American Heart Association approved strength training for seniors.
Now, new evidence demonstrates that older adults who strength train are significantly reducing their risk for a heart attack or stroke. Read more about the research which defines how seniors can improve their heart health with strength training.
The study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise by researchers from Iowa State University, followed nearly 13,000 people from 1987-2006. Researchers asked participants whether they participated in strength training and then followed-up with the participants after a five or 10 year period, to find out if they had a heart attack or stroke.
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It turns out that those who participated in strength training for only one hour per week saw a 40-70% percent reduction in their risk of a heart attack or a stroke, whether they participated in aerobic exercise or not.
Other research has found that strength training achieves this by improving a senior’s lipid profile as well as their overall strength, according to the CDC.
Seniors may be eager to start strength or weight training but may be intimidated by the duration or intensity of exercise. There’s good news: strength training can be adjusted to a senior’s ability level.
Seniors who don’t feel they have the energy or time for long strength training sessions can still benefit from less frequent or short exercises. In fact, the study’s author, Duck-Chul Lee, Ph.D., an associate kinesiology professor at Iowa State University, argues that strength-training doesn’t have to be time-intensive.
“People may think they need to spend a lot of time lifting weights, but just two sets of bench presses that take less than five minutes could be effective,” he says.
He also explains how seniors can use household items for strength training instead of investing in weight training equipment. “Lifting any weight that increases resistance on your muscles is the key,” Lee says.
“My muscle doesn’t know the difference if I’m digging in the yard, carrying heavy shopping bags or lifting a dumbbell.”
However, before you begin a strength training regime, you should speak with your doctor. They may wish to perform a stress test to ensure you are fit to start training. If your doctor believes that you are not ready yet, you may be able to work with a physiotherapist or other professional to build cardiovascular health and strength to start weight lifting on your own.
If your doctor gives you the go ahead, you may also benefit from having a personal trainer or physiotherapist who has experience helping seniors lift weights. They can guide you to lift with proper form and ensure you give each muscle set proper rest. Professionals may have you begin with only a single set, two times a week, for safety.
It is important to note that some people who have certain health conditions should not lift weights under any circumstances, including those with:
Strength training also has benefits that extend beyond heart health. Lee and his fellow researchers found that less than an hour of strength training reduced the risk of hypercholesterolemia and metabolic syndrome by almost a third.
Other research has demonstrated that strength training reduces your risk for and symptoms of:
Participating in aerobic exercise alongside strength training can provide even further health benefits, both for heart health and other diseases that seniors commonly face.
Is strength training part of your regular exercise routine? Why or why not? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.