How to Maintain Strength as You Age
The right workout routine can really make a difference
Everybody ages, but the passing of years can look vastly different from person to person.
Some 80-year-olds have trouble navigating stairs, while others are running races. The key is figuring out what’s within your control so you can remain robust and independent for as long as possible.
“When people retire, we should give them a pair of sneakers and a gym membership,” says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Ph.D., professor in applied health sciences and dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This idea of taking it easy or phasing out activity is absolutely contradictory to what’s in people’s best interest.”
Step 1: Get Moving
If you’re sedentary (or have chronic health conditions), frailty can set in early, even in your 60s. But “even people in their 90s, if they’re engaged in strength training, can gain muscle,” Colón-Emeric says.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least two muscle-strengthening workouts weekly. Resistance training—also known as strength training—involves using weights or other equipment, including bands, and even your own body weight to challenge and strengthen your muscles.
And that’s most beneficial when paired with aerobic activity that raises your heart rate. The guidelines also recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week.
A jump from 0 to 150 minutes per week may seem daunting, so a gradual progression is most successful. Chodzko-Zajko says the biggest health gains come when you go from doing nothing to doing something, even if it’s just a fraction of the recommended amount to start.
Step 2: Build a Routine
Your strength-building routine should include a mix of muscle strengthening and aerobic activity customized for you. There's no one-size-fits-all prescription based only on age because muscle mass and function vary significantly depending on your health history and activity level, Colón-Emeric says.
Strength-training moves should target the entire body, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, either all at once or in stages. For example, try two or three sets of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise such as a bicep curl or toe stand (standing on the balls of your feet).
Lower-body strength is important for mobility and balance. But don’t neglect upper-body exercises. “Many activities of daily living, such as grooming and just reaching above your head and bringing down something from the kitchen cupboard require a minimum amount of upper-body strength,” Chodzko-Zajko says. “Simple self-care requires both upper- and lower-body strength.”
If you’re new to resistance training, consider taking a class or working one-on-one with a trainer who has experience with older adults. Everyone will have different limitations and goals, and those can be addressed through proper instruction.
A trainer can also help you figure out how heavy the weights you use should be. (Many YMCAs and gyms have programs designed specifically for seniors, and you can find a certified trainer at acefitness.org.)
And keep this in mind: “For most people, exercise is safe,” Colón-Emeric says. “If you have chest pain or shortness of breath with minimal exercise, you should see your doctor right away. People with very severe osteoporosis or a history of a broken vertebra need to get counseling on what exercises they can safely do. Otherwise, it’s really about listening to your body.”
If you notice some limitations, don’t be deterred. These normal shifts shouldn’t scare you into curtailing physical activity. In fact, the American Academy of Family Physicians cautions against “under-dosing” strength-training recommendations for older adults.
You generally don’t have to get medical clearance to start walking more regularly, but if you’re worried about more intense activity or you’re being treated for a health condition, ask for an exercise prescription from your physician. (Trainers should also do an initial health screen that can flag problems requiring clearance.)
Step 3: Reap the Rewards
Maintaining and building your strength yields improvements far beyond your muscles. These include benefits to:
Bone density: Bone mineral density (BMD) drops by about 1 percent per year once you get into your 70s. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, hiking, jogging, and playing tennis, can help strengthen bones. And resistance training appears to both decrease the rate of bone loss and stress the bones to stimulate new growth.
Balance: “People often lose sensation in their feet as they get older, and their eyesight and hearing decline, all of which can increase the risk of falls,” Colón-Emeric says. Building strength, especially in the legs and hips, may improve balance. And balance-specific exercises may be particularly beneficial in curbing frailty, according to a 2019 study in the journal BMC Geriatrics. These include standing on one leg, trying to walk a straight line, and doing heel and toe raises.
Quality of life: For older adults, getting into strength training means their activities of daily living might be easier to complete, according to Summer Cook, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “That can lead to an overall improvement in quality of life, too,” she says, and in friendships with fellow exercisers, her research has found.
Cognitive function: An analysis of 18 studies, published in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity, found that resistance training had a number of benefits for brain function. It was linked to improvements in processing speed and memory functions, and also seemed to increase the thickness of the brain’s essential gray matter while decreasing markers of inflammation.
Have Arthritis? Lighter May Be Better.
Up to half of Americans over age 65 have osteoarthritis— degeneration of the cartilage inside joints—which can make exercise painful and difficult. But the less active you are, the harder it may be to move.
Don’t get caught in this cycle. Many older adults with osteoarthritis aren’t able to lift heavier weights without pain; some are simply too weak. In these situations, lighter weights may be the solution.
Cook at the University of New Hampshire has been studying whether seniors can use lighter weights to get as strong as they would with heavier loads. She has found that with some adjustments, they can. This approach may make strength training doable for those who are daunted by heavier weights.
Her research compared traditional high-load training with a specialized intervention called blood flow restricted lifting, which uses about half the amount of weight. She found that both approaches improved leg muscle strength by a similar amount after 12 weeks. “It’s not the kind of thing you want to do by yourself," Cook says, “but there are more physical therapists who are starting to use this kind of technique.”
If you’re experiencing pain or weakness that’s limiting your ability to exercise, ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist who can develop a workout plan that’s more doable for you.
To help you keep track of your training, check out a few of our top-rated fitness trackers.