Read an Excerpt
Strength Training for SeniorsHow to Rewind Your Biological Clock
By Michael Fekete
Hunter House Inc., PublishersCopyright © 2006 Michael Fekete
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStrength Training The Way to Rewind Your Biological Clock
Scientists have yet to discover the philosopher's stone that will confer immortality. However, the ability of regular exercise to reduce biological age by ten to twenty years is no mean miracle. Indeed, I know of no other therapy that could achieve comparable results. - Roy J. Shephard
As one of the many results of social and scientific advancements, we live longer than our predecessors did. Humans' life expectancy has increased dramatically over the last century, and it continues to do so. In 1900 the life span of a male and female living in the United States averaged 48.3 and 51.1 years, respectively. Due to advancements in health care, sanitation, nutrition, and a higher standard of living, by 1990 these figures had increased to 72.1 and 79.0 years, respectively. These are impressive numbers even when we recognize that the full potential for longevity remains far from being realized, due to factors such as pollution, bad eating habits, insufficient exercise, and the increased propensity to acquirecertain diseases. But seniors want more than statistical numbers showing a mere extension of life. They want enjoyment, independence, and an enhanced ability to carry on with the activities of daily living, such as caring for themselves. In addition, many of the current generation of seniors actively participate in recreational and athletic activities that they did not engage in before their retirement. They want to live their extra years to the fullest, with vitality and energy.
Whereas a decade ago a senior citizen was expected to slow down and take a rest, now the trend is to add more and more activities to the list of things to do. Wherever you go, you can see seniors on trails, in canoes and kayaks, on bicycles, and in the gym. They are walking, hiking, jogging, playing tennis and golf, taking classes in aerobics, yoga, and Pilates, and engaging in master events in every sport.
Not only do seniors do things they were not supposed to do a few decades ago, but they do them well. A good friend of mine who is eighty years old and several times a master champion in his sport told me a story. He was kayaking on Lake Erie last year, warming up for his training session. He said that as he got older, his bones and muscles needed additional gentle warming up before he was able to paddle hard for a few hours on rough water. A group of youngsters paddled by, and he asked if they minded if he cruised with them. They said as a rule they wouldn't mind; however, because they wanted to kayak to an island that was quite a distance away, they would prefer that he didn't. On top of that, they told him they did not like to wait for slowpokes. Les arrived at that island a good thirty minutes ahead of them. He could not hold back a sarcastic remark when he saw them pulling their kayaks onshore: "I had never thought of it before, but now I know how it feels to wait for slowpokes."
Physical activity for seniors is just as important, if not more so, than it is for other age groups. Older adults have come to recognize that the "fountain of youth" is movement. Their desire to exercise is becoming stronger and stronger. Seniors, as an age group, tend to be physically more active than teenagers. The image of sedentary, physically inactive seniors is becoming a thing of the past. Increasingly, senior citizens fully realize that they can't afford to slow down, because they can halt many of the undesirable effects of aging by being physically active. Not only can they check the effects of aging, but they can reverse them. In other words, they can lower their biological age.
What do I mean by "biological age"? Your biological age may be different from your chronological age, which is how long you've actually lived. Based on things like lifestyle, genetics, and medical history, your biological age may be several years younger or older than your chronological age. Although you cannot change your genetics or your past history, you can change your lifestyle, and doing so can have a positive impact on your biological age from this moment forward. As the website RealAge.com puts it, "Science is increasingly showing that certain health choices can slow and perhaps even reverse the rate of aging. Even choices made late in life make a difference. For example, people who exercise early in life, but quit, may show no longevity benefit. In contrast, people who start exercising in their 50s and 60s, or even later, show considerable benefit." This is great news for seniors who are considering embarking on an exercise program.
Recently, Canada took a leading role in recognizing the significance of strength training for older adults when the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging, funded by a three-year grant from Health Canada, developed strength training guidelines for older adults and published a National Blueprint Document. Canada is also the moving force behind forming an international coalition to draft a document that recommends international training guidelines for seniors. Accepted by the Sixth World Congress on Aging and Physical Activity, held August 3-7, 2004, in London, Ontario, and endorsed by the World Health Organization, these guidelines for safely and effectively strength training seniors will now be implemented all over the world, elevating the quality of life for millions.
There have been many books written on various forms of physical training for seniors. In Canada, we are especially fortunate to have some of the most widely recognized international experts on aging and physical activity. They are doing a terrific job of conducting important research, providing fitness professionals with valuable information, and promoting active lifestyles for older adults. These experts are also influencing our governmental and social agencies to invest more money, time, and effort in a national program of making physical activity an integral part of the lives of seniors.
The Importance of Strength Training for Seniors
With all this momentum for a more active adult lifestyle, why is there a need for a book on strength training? Why is strength such an important aspect of our overall fitness?
Strength is the ability to defeat gravity and resistance and to move with vitality and vigor. Strength is the energy that enables us to produce force and to perform skilled and powerful motions. Strength is what prevents the body from giving way, succumbing, crumbling, and failing during its endeavors. Strength provides the impulse, dynamics, and momentum behind the ability of the human body to act with force and energy. Without sufficient strength, we would decline and fail. Without strength, we would be unable to perform any of the activities that make us healthy and fit.
General fitness includes strength, endurance, flexibility, coordination, and balance. However, strength is the basic quality that provides the necessary foundation for and influences our performance of all the other capacities that make up fitness. Stated more simply, strength affects all other aspects of fitness. It has been established that half of the age-related decline in aerobic capacity is due to a loss of muscle mass. Fortunately, strength can be improved safely and effectively in people of almost any age. It has been demonstrated that even ninety-year-olds can participate in and benefit from serious strength training. Several studies prove that muscle strength can be improved by as much as 66 percent even at a very late age.
General fitness and its most important aspect, strength, decline as we age. One of the effects of this decline is the loss of lean muscle tissue, which means loss of strength. But, through exercise, this deterioration can be slowed down, stopped, and in many cases turned around. All of the effects of enhanced strength through exercise will improve the quality of our lives. Strength is the spring that makes our biological clock tick, and, fortunately, this spring can be rewound until a very late age, allowing our clock to tick on vigorously. The seniors I train for strength, and the master athletes I know, not only slow down the process of muscle loss, but also many of them stop and reverse it. But the benefits of exercise are more extensive than this. It is a proven fact that, as opposed to those who do not exercise regularly, physically active seniors enjoy the following benefits of exercise:
1. Better health, including:
- improved cardiovascular function
- improved pulmonary function
- favorable changes in blood lipids
- improved hormonal activities
- improved enzymatic activities
- healthier glucose levels
- improved immune function and resistance to diseases such as cancer
- better sleep
- improved cognitive function
- increased ability to cope with stress, reduced anxiety and depression, enhanced moods, and an improved ability to relax
- a more effective immune system
- social benefits such as increased contacts, friendships, support groups, and involvement in sports events that in turn have positive effects on mental health
2. Better fitness, including:
- increased strength
- increased aerobic endurance
- greater flexibility and range of motion
- improved coordinative and balancing skills
- greater velocity of movements (increased muscle speed)
- healthier body composition (higher ratio of lean muscle to fat)
- better posture and gait
I could go on at length about the many benefits that elevate the quality of life of active adults. I could also talk endlessly about the various physical and mental/emotional improvements that exercise, in general, has made in the lives of my "mature" clients. But this book is about improving one's strength through serious strength training, so I will deal with the specific benefits of this very important training modality.
Over the years, as a personal trainer and a specialist in strength and conditioning, I have had the opportunity to see and experience the benefits of various exercise modalities, including aerobic training, flexibility training, and strength training. Although I wholeheartedly agree that it is important to balance aerobic, flexibility, and strength training according to the individual needs of each person, strength training is of paramount and primary importance for seniors because, as mentioned earlier, strength has such an important effect on the other aspects of fitness.
I actively train for endurance events that involve swimming, kayaking, biking, and running. At age fifty-three, I won the masters category in one of the most grueling multisport events, the Extreme Quadrathlon, held in Courpière, France. The race involved a 10k swim, 40k kayak race, 200k bike ride, and 42k run-all performed without breaks between events. One would think that for these types of endurance events 90 percent of my training should have been aerobic. However, in fact, it was strength training that was the most important aspect of my exercise regimen. I gained more benefits from strength training than from all other forms of exercise combined. It is a well-known fact in exercise physiology that cardiovascular capacity (expressed in a measurement called [VO.sub.2] max) is genetically determined. That means the window for increasing cardiovascular capacity is limited. By contrast, muscle strength and muscle endurance can be dramatically improved through exercise. In fact, with proper training, fast-twitch muscle cells (the kind needed for short bursts of energy) can be converted to slow-twitch muscle cells (the kind needed for strength endurance). I did a lot of cardio training (running, biking, and swimming), and except for improvement in technique, I did not see any improvement in my aerobic capacity. Then I started training the muscles needed for running, biking, and swimming, with a regimen involving a high number of repetitions, a high number of sets, and medium resistance. I saw dramatic improvements in my racing times. It has been established that even marathon runners see dramatic improvements in their racing times after a suitable regimen of strength training.
During the course of my professional career as a coach and trainer, I have used every form of physical exercise to improve the fitness of my clients and of the athletes I train. I have found that strength training brings about the widest range of immediate, maintainable, and long-lasting physical and mental/emotional benefits. Recent research proves that even with the very elderly and the very weak, effective strength training increases independent function skills and produces significant improvements in stair climbing, getting up from the floor, rising from the chair, and walking speed.
What are the physical benefits of strength training in particular?
Stronger muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments
Reduction in the negative effects of osteoporosis
Improved function, coordination, motor skill, and balance
Improved range of motion
Reduction in low-back problems
Improved body composition, due to an increase in lean muscle mass
Higher metabolic rate (muscle is the most metabolically active tissue; it burns fat by its mere existence)
Improved protein synthesis
Improved cardiac function
Improved respiratory function, due to an increase in the strength of the chest muscles
Easing of the pain of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
Better glucose utilization
Faster gastrointestinal transit
Decrease in blood pressure
Improvement in blood lipids
Improved hormonal and local enzymatic activity
More effective immune system
Improved physical appearance
If we compare the physical benefits of strength training to those of exercise in general, we cannot fail to notice that strength training alone affords almost every physical benefit of all other forms of exercise.
Of course, we are able to reap and enjoy the benefits of improved strength only if we practice strength training safely, effectively, and systematically. Otherwise the gains are short-lived and we also run the risk of injuries, burnouts, lack of progress, and, ultimately, failure.
Followed correctly, the program described in this book ensures that all of these fundamentals are met. There is a reason why the exercise descriptions are located after the chapters on lifestyle and safety, and after the chapters spelling out how to design your initial program based on your health status. Please do not skip these vital first steps. Read the book, complete the worksheets, and visit your doctor and a fitness professional to have your health and fitness assessed. Use light weights at first, and take care to start with the beginning exercises (Chapter 9) if you haven't exercised regularly in a while. It is better to start slow and make progress quickly than to start too ambitiously, injure yourself, and be forced to stop training for several weeks.
When beginning a strength-training program, you do not need fancy, expensive, or complicated equipment that takes up too much room, is difficult to move, and is very hard to get rid of. As you will see in the chapters describing various exercises, little equipment is needed for executing an effective strength-training program. Purchase only the basic equipment you need. If, after comparing prices, terms, and the cost of setup at several fitness stores, you buy a flat bench, a set of dumbbells, an exercise mat, and an exercise ball, you will have everything you need to start your strength-training program.
Although machines may be a safe bet for a beginner, especially in a club environment where various distractions can lessen your attention and focus, free weights can be just as safe if you exercise carefully and effectively. Chapter 11 discusses the pros and cons of training at home versus joining a gym. If you decide to train at home, buy a flat bench and a starter set of dumbbells (hand-held weights) weighing three pounds, five pounds, and eight pounds. Men may also want to purchase additional ten- and twelve-pound dumbbells, and you can always buy heavier weights later as your strength improves.
You'll also need an exercise mat for certain trunk exercises and an exercise (stability) ball for core, balance, and functional training. Many companies make stability balls, and they come in various sizes and price ranges. The personnel at the fitness-supply store will be able to recommend one that is most suitable for you.
Excerpted from Strength Training for Seniors by Michael Fekete Copyright © 2006 by Michael Fekete. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.