Weight lifting and stretching are useful at any age, but there are specific benefits for older adults.
With aging comes concerns about strength, balance, and mobility. But integrating resistance training and stretching into your routine can keep you feeling healthy and strong.
Not sure where to start? Read on for a primer on how aging affects your body and how movement can make a difference, plus a full-body workout and stretching routine that you can do at home.
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How does aging impact our bodies?
Age may just be a number, but some physical changes do occur as we get older — and these can affect our health. They include:
Decreased range of motion
Notice that your shoulders, hips, or knees don’t move as well as they used to? As you age, your range of motion — the full movement potential of a joint — decreases due to changes in connective tissue, arthritis, loss of muscle mass, and more.
By how much?
In a study published in the Journal of Aging Research, researchers analyzed shoulder abduction and hip flexion flexibility in adults ages 55–86.
They found a decrease in flexibility of the shoulder and hip joints by approximately 6 degrees per decade across the study participants, but also noted that in generally healthy older adults, the age-related loss of flexibility does not significantly impact daily life (1).
Declining strength is another hallmark of aging.
Older research found that muscle mass decreases by approximately 3-8% per decade after age 30, and this rate increases after age 60 (2).
More current research found the rate of muscle atrophy was closer to 1% per year after age 50, which has an exponential (continually increasing) effect when considered over time (3).
This phenomenon is known as sarcopenia — a loss of muscle mass and function as we get older. This decrease in muscle mass comes from several factors, including:
hormonal changesdeclines in activityan unbalanced diet that’s low in calories and protein
Sarcopenia is strongly related to falls and overall frailty, so it’s an important factor to address as you get older.
If your balance isn’t what it used to be, there’s an explanation for that as well.
You maintain your balance using:
your eyesightyour vestibular system (structures in the inner ear)feedback from joints in the spine, ankles and knees
These systems send signals to your brain to help your body maintain its balance as you move about your day.
As you age, however, these signals aren’t communicated as effectively. Your eyesight gets worse, your cognitive abilities start to decline, and your joints become less mobile.
Although you may feel young at heart, aging affects you physically in many ways, including decreased range of motion, loss of strength, and loss of balance.
The importance of strength training as we age
One of the ways to combat physical age-related concerns — plus maintain range of motion, strength, and balance — is to incorporate consistent strength training into your weekly routine.
Strength training can benefit older adults by:
Increasing bone density. When you strength train, you’re putting stress on your bones from the movement and force patterns, which leads bone-forming cells to jump to work. This creates bone that is stronger and denser (4).Increasing muscle mass. More muscle means more strength, better balance, and an increased metabolism. One study found that by implementing a training program, older adults were able to improve their muscle mass and muscle strength by 30% (3).Enabling better balance and functionality. Having strong muscles contributes to better daily function. After all, activities like sitting down in a chair, reaching up to get something from a shelf, or even tying your shoes all require balance, flexibility, and strength. And for older adults in particular, these benefits translate into a reduced risk of falls or other catastrophic injuries (5).Improving body composition. Maintaining muscle mass is important to decrease the chances of obesity, especially as we age (6).Improving quality of life. Older adults who participate in a regular resistance training routine often see improvements in their psychosocial well-being (5).Summary
Strength training as we age has many benefits, including an increase in bone density and muscle mass, better functionality, and improved body composition.
The importance of mobility as we age
Mobility is defined as how freely a joint can move through a range of motion. For example — can you bend, then fully extend, your knee without any hesitation or pain? If so, your knees demonstrate good mobility.
Different than flexibility, which is the ability of your muscles and other connective tissues to stretch temporarily, mobility involves joints in motion.
It’s important at any age, but especially as we get older — maintaining mobility is key to functioning independently.
According to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Aging, older adults who lose their mobility (7):
are less likely to remain living at homehave higher rates of disease, disability, hospitalization, and deathhave poorer quality of lifeSummary
Staying mobile is very important as you age. Lack of mobility can lead to injuries and an overall poorer quality of life.
Goals for your at-home strength training program
Committing to and maintaining an at-home strength training program can be the first step to preventing — or delaying the onset of — many age-related ailments.
The best part is, it doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming.
Your at-home strength training program should:
Include 3 sessions weekly. Incorporate a 20- to 30-minute strength training session 3 days per week. You can work out at home with minimal equipment and still see significant results.Work your whole body. Incorporate upper body, lower body, and core exercises to get the most out of each workout. Be consistent. The more consistently you strength train, the better your results will be.
Equipment to help you strength train at home
Just a few pieces of equipment can go a long way in executing an effective at-home strength training program.
Resistance bands. Bands are great because they are easy to transport and store, plus they’re versatile and cost effective. They also put less force on your joints, which means a reduced risk of injury. A set like this with varying resistance options will give you the most bang for your buck. Dumbbells. Another versatile piece of equipment, dumbbells can be used for many exercises. Compared with machines or even a barbell, dumbbells require greater stabilization — and increased core engagement — plus they can help you identify and work on any strength imbalances.An adjustable dumbbell like this will allow you to use several weight increments. Alternatively, a basic rubber dumbbell like this is also a good investment.
6 strength exercises to try at home
Combine these 6 strength exercises for an effective and comprehensive full-body workout.
Unless otherwise noted, do 3 sets of 10–12 reps of each of these exercises.
With balance declining as you age, proactively focusing on improving it is key. Start with this one-legged drill to suss out any imbalances you may have:
Position yourself next to a chair or a wall if needed for balance.Stand with your feet together, arms down at your sides.Bend your knee and lift your right foot up off the ground behind you, holding where your leg forms a 90-degree angle. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the left leg. Complete 2 holds on each side.
The squat is a powerhouse exercise, not only for building muscle but for preparing you for daily life. If you ever sit in a chair, you’ll benefit from squatting. Here’s how to do it:
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, with your arms down at your sides.Push your hips back then bend your knees, lowering down until your thighs are parallel to the ground or as close as possible, as if sitting in a chair. Keep your chest lifted and proud throughout the movement. Push up evenly through your whole foot, back to the starting position.
Pushups are one of the most effective exercises to gain upper body strength, and you need no equipment to execute them. Start on a wall, and then try a pushup kneeling if you want more of a challenge. Here’s how to do it:
Get into a plank position with your hands on a wall at shoulder height and your feet about 3–4 feet from the wall. Bend your elbows to come closer to the wall, maintaining a straight line from your head to your ankles. Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body. Push back away to the starting position.
Resistance band row
A strong back is key for good posture, among other things. Use a resistance band here to strengthen those muscles:
Grab a resistance band, with a handle in each hand, and step on the band with both feet. Cross the handles and hinge at the waist to a 45-degree angle.Maintaining a straight back, send your elbows up and back, rowing the handles up toward your chest. Squeeze your upper back muscles at the top.Pause, then slowly release back to start.
A boon for both balance and stability, bird dog will challenge your full body.
Assume a position on all fours on the ground, placing your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Keeping your neck neutral, simultaneously extend your right arm and left leg. Make sure your hips stay square to the ground. Pause at the top. Return to start and repeat with your left arm and right leg.
An effective exercise for the posterior chain — or the back of your body — glute bridges will build strength in no time. Add a dumbbell to your hips if you need added resistance.
Start by laying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Your arms should be down at your sides. Brace your core and push up through your feet, lifting your butt up off the ground until your hips are fully extended. Squeeze your glutes at the top. Pause, then slowly return to start.
Goals for your at-home stretching program
Along with strength training, stretching is another activity that can improve physical age-related ailments.
Your at-home stretching program should:
Be at least 5 minutes long, 3 times per week. Even a short session, when done consistently, will make a difference in your flexibility and mobility in the long run.Be consistent. As with strength training, the more consistently you stretch, the better your results will be. Maybe you stretch first thing in the morning or set aside time before bed — whatever works for you is key. Don’t overdo it. There’s a fine line between stretching and taking your muscles too far. Once you feel resistance in the stretch, don’t push it — sit there, allowing the stretch to do its job. Also, our bodies need time to recuperate in between sessions — work your way up to stretching daily if need be.
5 stretches to include in your at-home fitness routine
Do these 5 stretches to hit all of the major body parts and help improve your flexibility and mobility.
If not indicated, hold each stretch for about 30 seconds total. As you focus on breathing — deep inhale, deep exhale — try to go deeper into the stretch.
Particularly if you sit a lot, stretching the hamstrings is important to maintain good movement in the hips. Here’s how to do it:
Position yourself with a step or another flat, raised surface in front of you. There should be about one foot between you and the step.Put one heel on the step and lean forward at the hips to a 45-degree angle.Feel the stretch in your hamstring, leaning forward to go deeper.
Seated hip stretch
Hip functionality is key to many movements in our daily lives, like walking, so keeping these muscles and joints mobile is important. Try this seated stretch:
Sit in a chair and scoot down to the edge. Your feet should be flat on the floor and your back should be straight.Bring your right ankle to rest on your left knee, bending your leg to do so. Lean forward slightly to feel the stretch in your hip.
Combat the forward-lean posture with this chest-opening stretch:
Sit in a chair and scoot down to the edge. Your feet should be flat on the floor and your back should be straight.Interlace your fingers behind your back and open your chest up to the sky, dropping your shoulders.
Side-lying thoracic rotation
Another good stretch if you find your shoulders rounding forward, this rotation will target and release your upper body:
Lay on the ground on your left side, arms straight out in front of you with palms touching.Lift your right arm straight up and over, opening your chest and allowing your right arm to drop to the other side of your body. Your head should follow.After 5–10 seconds, rotate back to start and repeat for 10 reps.
Stretch your back and core with this move:
Stand straight with your arms down at your sides and feet shoulder-width apart.Bring your right arm up and over your head, bending your torso to the left as you go. Hold here for 5–10 seconds, then return to center and switch arms.
The bottom line
Consistently strength training and stretching, even for short periods 3 times per week, can help tremendously in delaying or preventing many age-related ailments. Start slow and watch your strength, balance, and mobility improve.
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