It’s no secret that older Americans benefit from physical activity. Because of its generally inactive nature, a decrease in functional skills and subsequently a decrease in ability to perform the everyday tasks of living usually accompany aging.Study after study has shown that physical activity mitigates the loss of muscle strength and endurance, indicating that if older adults focus energy on muscular, skeletal, balance and mobility training, they will maintain a functionally superior quality of life well into old age. It is important for older adults to understand not only the precise benefits, but also safe ways to perform a strength-training program, and perhaps most importantly, how to stay with a program once begun.

In the November-December issue of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal,® L. Jerome Brandon, Ph.D., FACSM offers a list of both physiological and performance benefits, proposes strength training guidelines for older adults, and makes some strong suggestions for adherence.

Strength training first results in physiological benefits within the muscle; performance improvements follow. The connecting tissue between nerves and muscles, usually decreased in number with age, can be preserved with strength training. Muscle fibers are also preserved through control of these connections, helping maintain strength and endurance.

Loss of muscle mass, called sarcopenia, also contributes to loss of strength, and can be prevented with a regular program of strength training. To a lesser extent, bone loss, also characteristic of advancing age, can be prevented by weight-bearing exercise, which increases bone mineral content. The performance results of strength training are clear. Simple everyday activities such as walking, reaching, bathing and cooking are easier for those who participate in strength training.

Brandon and his co-authors conducted an eighteen-month strength training program with 30 older adults (average age 72.1 years). They found that the participants increased both functional capacity and total body strength rapidly in the first six months. Concluding that strength benefits outweigh functional benefits, the authors point out that individual functional tasks are significantly easier for strength-trained older adults.

To set up guidelines for a strength training program, Brandon points to several studies that outline specific exercises. Because participants will benefit from almost any intensity or repetition, he states, the major consideration should be the safety and comfort of the participant.

The most important aspect of any strength-training program is consistency, and the older adult who feels safe and comfortable with a strength-training program is more likely to stay with it.

Major factors influencing participation, according to a focus group of older adults, are social support, health benefits, and physical surroundings. Thus, if the program offers interaction with other older adults and friendly and capable staff members, if the participants believe strength training will truly improve their function, and if the exercise room or area is clean, appropriately lighted and free of extremes in temperature, the likelihood of adherence is increased. When all factors are considered, the benefits of strength training for older adults far outweigh any perceived inconvenience, but adherence is important, so those inconveniences must be addressed.

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