Like many older adults, Martha had a hard time getting in and out of chairs. Rather than waiting to get weaker, the 93-year-old joined a gym in Albuquerque, NM. On her first visit, she pedaled the recumbent bicycle for three minutes before exhaustion forced her to stop. After exercising twice a week for three years, she now has the energy to work out on the bike for 20 minutes, walk on the treadmill for 15 minutes and push 60 pounds on the leg press machine.

“Martha recognized that she was losing ground physically and needed to exercise,” says George Fraser, owner of Fifty ‘N Fit, the club where Martha belongs. “We gradually lose strength as we age, and we need strength to be functional, prevent injuries and enjoy life.”

While some seniors such as Martha are turning to strength training to slow the aging process, increase energy levels, improve muscle strength and strengthen bones in the fight against osteoporosis, the percentage of adults that lift weights declines with advancing age. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed the results of the 2001 National Health Interview Survey and found that about 12 percent of seniors aged 65 to 74 years old are involved in resistance training compared to 10 percent of persons over the age of 75. The survey also found that nearly a quarter of the physically active respondents engaged in strength training, but women were less likely than men to work out on weight machines twice a week.

The CDC concluded that the United States needs more programs to encourage seniors, especially postmenopausal women, to do strength training due to the loss of bone density. As seniors become less active, the muscles undergo less stress and can get weaker. By engaging in strength training, an older person can prevent the breakdown of healthy muscle tissue and bones and strengthen the connective tissues around the joints.

Strength training becomes especially important for seniors because between the ages of 35 and 70, adults lose 50 percent of their strength and 75 percent of their power, says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging. Power gives adults the burst of energy to get up out of chairs and stop from falling forward. Lack of leg strength is the number one reason that seniors are admitted to long-term care facilities, but by exercising regularly, they can go from a bed to a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, Milner says.

“We're always looking for the fountain of youth,” he says. “There's no such thing, but probably the closest you'll get is strength training. It offers you the ability to do things that you didn't think were possible.”

Added Health Benefits

Strength training can not only keep an older person fit, but it can also reduce the side effects of chronic diseases such as osteoporosis or diabetes. According to the National Institute of Health, 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, and an additional 18 million have low bone mass and face an increased risk of this disease. About 80 percent of these 18 million Americans are female, which makes strength training especially important for post-menopausal women, says Dr. Michael Flynn, a professor in the department of health and kinesiology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. During a research study for the American Association of Retired Persons, he monitored 29 women from ages 69 to 84. He put half of the women on a weekly strength program while a control group didn't change activity levels. After 10 weeks, the women were able to lift a mean increase of 1.5 times the weight.

“Our research has shown that strength training can have a remarkable impact on the lives of seniors,” he says. “There are documented cases of individuals who required a cane to get around, but after strength training they no longer needed those items for mobility.”

Strength training can also improve seniors' insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, according to the CDC. Case in point: Max, a 70-year-old diabetic who visits Fifty ‘N Fit six times a week. After working out for three months, Max lost weight, increased his strength and managed to control his Type 2 diabetes. Fraser attributes Max's normal lab values and ability to get off of his medication to a consistent exercise regimen.

Mary Ann Smith, the senior wellness director at San Jose, CA-based Almaden Valley Athletic Club (AVAC), agrees that strength training can make the difference between medical management and lifestyle management of Type 2 diabetes. AVAC, where 15 percent of the members are over the age of 55, has been offering specialized strength training for seniors since it established its senior wellness program 15 years ago. The program, which has more than 600 members, is designed to develop and maintain senior fitness with specialized lectures, workshops, aerobics classes and social events.

Make It Senior-Friendly

In the past five years, Milner says he's seen an increase in the number of 50-plus clubs. And that should come as no surprise. Adults aged 55 and older now make up a quarter of the health club memberships in the United States, according to a recent nationwide survey by American Sports Data. From 1998 to 2005, the number of 55-plus fitness participants increased by 33 percent while the 35- to 54-year-old age group posted a 13 percent gain and the 18- to 34-year-old group showed no growth.

When designing a program for senior adults, facilities need to address several factors including awareness of fitness benefits, affordability, physical limitations, accessibility (such as transportation) and fear of injury. First and foremost, fitness professionals must evaluate the seniors' level of function and ask for their medical history. Otherwise, they could be doing more harm than good, Fraser says.

Fraser and his wife, who are both physical therapists, bought the 4,200-square-foot Fifty ‘N Fit club five years ago to offer outpatient physical therapy services as well as a safe fitness environment for seniors. The club now has 270 members who are all over the age of 50. Fraser and his team provide personalized attention to each new member by offering three start-up sessions. During the hour-and-a-half sessions, they discuss the new member's medical history and customize a cardio, strength-training and stretching program. Once the members attend the first three sessions, Fraser says they're often more comfortable in the gym setting and can perform exercises that are appropriate for their level of conditioning.

To draw in the senior population, Roger Schwab, director of Main Line Fitness in Bryn Mawr, PA, built a second, smaller strength-training facility back in 1992. Along with lifting weights in the 13,000-square-foot weight room on the third floor, seniors can also exercise in the 3,500-square-foot area, which features about 30 machines. As the members move from machine to machine in the circuit, an employee supervises them to make sure they're performing the exercise correctly.

“In some fitness centers, once a payment is made, you're on your own,” he says. “We take a completely different approach. We try to get an understanding of each new member and train them in a sensible manner to prevent exercise-induced injuries and strengthen the heart, lungs, muscles and bones. One of the best ways to slow the degenerative process is to keep people strong in a safe environment.”

Health clubs can also offer senior classes, set aside their facility for seniors during certain hours of the day or offer specialized weight training equipment. Special programming and equipment can make a health club less intimidating to seniors, Flynn says.

“Seniors didn't grow up with gleaming exercise machines or health clubs,” Flynn says. “When they go into a health club, they're overwhelmed with spandex, testosterone and grunting young people. Many of the machines also start at 15 pounds and then go up five or 10 pounds at a time. Some of the seniors that I test can't even do the weight on the first plate.”

Flynn advises clubs to invest in weight machines that allow seniors to change the weight in small increments or purchase one- or two-pound add-on weights. That way seniors can feel that they're making progress. Otherwise, they may be able to do eight or 12 reps with 15 pounds and then only one rep with a 20 pound weight. Flynn says the participants increase the weight by 5% or 10% once they can handle more than 15 reps in the previous week of training.

Some of the equipment manufacturers are responding to the needs of older exercisers by making the placards easier to read, designing the equipment so it's low-impact and offering seats that are accessible to people in wheelchairs. Since many older adults have arthritis, some machines are designed so a user can push a button rather than gripping a small pin and pulling it out. Milner says equipment should be ageless by appealing to everyone from the first-time users to the seniors.

“If I haven't exercised for 30 years and I've lost a good portion of my strength, I'm not going to start out at a very high weight,” he says. “If your strength-training equipment starts at 10 pounds and then jumps up in 10 pound increments, I'm asked to increase my resistance by 100 percent.”

By doing a consistent strength-training program, an older adult can walk faster, climb the stairs more quickly and fall less frequently. Some adults may even be as fortunate as Martha and still be working out in a gym at the age of 93.

EQUIPMENT CHECKLIST

Here's what to look for when choosing the most appropriate strength-training and cardiovascular equipment for older adults.

  • Non-intimidating in appearance and function
  • User-friendly, simple to understand and use
  • Low-impact
  • Non-obstructed entry and exit, especially for individuals with a variety of functional abilities and disabilities
  • Clear indication where to sit and where to place hands and feet
  • Adjustments that allow individuals of various body sizes and functional limitations to be in the proper position while exercising to prevent compromising the joints
  • Hand, seat and pad position and adjustments should be clear and simple to locate and operate
  • Ability to change resistance from a seated position
  • Resistance increases in one-pound or small increments
  • Instructional placards with simple diagrams, easy-to-read text and print, and correct usage information
  • Low starting resistance (fewer than five pounds)
  • Range of motion adjustments that accommodate joint dysfunction
  • Pins with large knobs for those with gripping issues (e.g. arthritis,stroke, etc.)
  • Few moving parts for safety and ease of use
  • Space efficient and small footprint
  • Solid warranty and low maintenance
  • Quality manufacturer, product, workmanship, service and training
  • Stability in welding, paint durability, quality padding material, reinforced stitching on pads, warranty, maintenance schedule and local service availability

Source: International Council on Active Aging

Manufacturers Of Strength-Training Equipment for Seniors

Visit the Web site for the International Council on Active Aging at www.icaa.cc/preferredvendor.htm for a list of additional manufacturers of senior-friendly, strength-training equipment.

Survey Stats

The table below lists the percentage of persons aged 65 and older who reported meeting the 2010 national health objective for strength training, which is defined as engaging in strength training two times a week.

Sample Size % Meeting Objective
Sex
Men 2,098 13.3
Women 3,439 9.5
Age Group
65-74 2,938 12.1
75 Years and Older 2,599 9.9
Source: National Health Interview Survey and the CDC