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Strength training important no matter how old you are

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Q: I am 67 years old and I want to start a lifting weights. How do I do this without getting hurt?

A: Staying active is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle, no matter how old you are. Aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming and cycling are familiar ways to keep yourself in shape and live a longer, healthier life.

Strength training is growing in popularity. Perhaps you already have a weight program, or are thinking about starting one or wonder if it is safe for you to consider.

Strength training is an important part of fitness for any age. Physical activity research is focusing on older adults more than ever before. Estimates are that by the year 2030, almost 25 per cent of the Canadian population will be 65 and older. There are changes in our physiology or the way our body functions as we get older. These changes do not occur exactly at age 65, but as we age. There is individual variation as to when some of these changes occur. Research in exercise for older adults is crucial because it takes into account these changes to help us stay active as we age. These studies do not serve to limit older adults in their activities but actually help them do more than ever before.

What occurs to our muscles as we age?

As we become older, we lose muscle mass. This is known as sarcopenia. This process starts around age 30 and is more pronounced in women. The loss of muscle density also results in more fat in our muscle and also means the ratio of fat to muscle in our bodies increases. Our metabolic rate decreases with less muscle, which means we do not need to consume as many calories as we age. Inadequate protein intake and decreased physical activity with aging will also decrease our metabolic rate.

How does our strength change with loss of muscle mass?

Our strength obviously decreases as we lose muscle mass. A 30 per cent reduction in strength has been found to occur between age 50 and 70, compared with 30. In fact, muscle strength declines by approximately 15 per cent per decade in the sixth and seventh decade and about 30 per cent thereafter.

How does loss of strength affect our daily lives?

Losing strength can have a greater impact on our day-to-day life than we may think. It doesn't just mean we have difficulty lifting 25 or 50 pounds, but it can affect the strength we need for our everyday activities. For example, walking takes us everywhere. Sometimes, we need to walk faster if we want to catch a bus, or stop something from falling off a bookshelf or even to keep up with children or grandchildren. Due to the loss of muscle strength as we age, we will find it more difficult for us to move quickly when we need to. Even lifting small children, doing our household chores or picking up a suitcase can become challenging with less strength. Previous testing has shown that 40 per cent of females between the ages of 55 and 64 were unable to lift 4.5 kilograms, and this percentage goes up with increasing age.

How much strength training do we need to do?

If you are just beginning a strength-training program, then do as much as you can do. If that means you can only do two arm and two leg exercises, five times each, once a week, using 2.5 pounds, then that's where you should start. Start easy and start simple. Seek the help of a fitness professional if you are unsure what to do. You can work your way up to the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for strength training. These suggest:

-- Eight to 10 exercises involving the major muscle groups (arms, shoulders, chest, abdomen, back, hips and legs)

-- Do these exercises two to three days a week

-- Do one set of eight to 15 repetitions (or less if near fatigue). The amount of weight should seem somewhat hard to you in difficulty, but during the first eight weeks, use a lighter amount in order to allow your connective tissue to adapt. Doing more than one set only results in further minor increases in strength.

Don't be intimidated by all the weight machines in the gym. You can increase your strength by using hand weights (dumbbells) and resistance bands (even bicycle tubing) in addition to some of those machines.

If you have not had a medical checkup recently, you should see your doctor before commencing your strength training program. Some medical conditions have specific recommendations for strength training so it is important that you know whether you have any of these conditions.

Have fun with your strength-training program, be fit and stay strong!

Dr. Maureen Kennedy MD, CCFP, FCFP, Dip. Sport Med., is a sport and exercise medicine physician at the Sport MB-Sport Medicine Centre and the Reh-Fit Centre in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2013 C3

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