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In Association with

Weights for 50+



By Dr. Karl Knopf

Hippocrates said it so well more than 2000 years ago: “All parts of the body, which have function, if used in moderation and exercised to which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy and well developed and age slowly. But if left idle become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.” Mickey Mantle said the same thing, but in a simpler way: “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.”
Strength training is the single most critical step you can take to retard aging. The human body has over 400 voluntary muscles—it’s a machine that was designed for movement. Yet, in this technology-driven age, we consistently invest in products that reduce our need to move. Do you remember the days when you had to get out of the car to open the garage door? Or get up to change the TV channel? Even these simple bouts of physical activity required muscular strength. Unfortunately, all these wonderful labor-saving devices that we use daily hasten the process of sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle mass and strength). To keep our muscles from withering away from disuse, we must challenge them frequently.
Young people frequently exercise to look better. In middle age, people often exercise for the health of it. However, in order to age well and remain fully independent, we need to exercise for the function of it. Too often, older people find that many of the activities of daily living that they once found simple have become challenging. Many of my older students joined my classes because steps seemed higher than they used to be, chairs were harder to get out of, and even the act of lifting a bag of groceries caused strain. Much of the decline often associated with normal aging has more to do with a loss of muscular strength and function than the number of trips around the sun.
A great deal of strength is lost between the ages of 30 and 50. If a person participates in a regular strength-training routine, the loss of strength can be minimized. Fortunately, it is never too late to turn your fitness life around. Numerous studies have proven that both men and women in their 80s and 90s can regain their strength and function by engaging in sensible and regular strength training; in cases of arthritis, several studies have shown that when the muscles around an arthritic joint get stronger, the load placed on that joint decreases. I have personally witnessed a woman in my strength class lose about 30 pounds and dramatically improve her ability to get around; she no longer uses a walker and can pick things up off the floor easily, which she was unable to do a year ago. Today she has more energy and is having a lot more fun than she ever remembered. All these positive results can be derived by a slight reduction in calories to lose weight slowly and permanently, combined with a daily dose of strength training and aerobic exercise.

If You Rest, You Rust

People who do not engage in a regular strength-training routine throughout their lives will lose 40 to 50 percent of their muscle mass and 50 percent of their muscular strength by age 65. This loss is not without consequence—these people can become so weak that doing simple daily activities becomes very difficult. A recent study revealed just how much negative impact a sedentary lifestyle can have on aging. The study looked at adults aged 55 to 64 and found that 40 percent of women had a difficult time lifting and carrying 10 pounds; 20 percent of men within this age bracket found the same task difficult. This study also revealed that almost 25 percent of both men and women had a difficult time walking a quarter of a mile briskly. The saddest part of this report stated that by age 65, untrained individuals had lost as much as 80 percent of their strength.
This decline can be responsible for loss of independent living skills and can exacerbate existing disabilities. While this information is both alarming and discouraging, the good news is that it is never too late to feel great and recapture some of the strength and stamina we had in our younger days. All it takes is a sensible and regular dose of strength training to prevent sarcopenia.

Benefits of Strength Training

Although there are numerous benefits that arise from strength training, perhaps the most obvious benefit is maintaining existing strength. Doctors Bortz and Nelson, experts in the field of older adult wellness, agree that the best way to stay out of a nursing home and maintain or regain independence is to keep legs strong.
Recent information suggests that strength training once a week is all we need to do to maintain strength. Strength training three times a week provides optimal results. However, performing strength training twice a week yields 80 percent of the benefits that you gain from working out three times a week.
In addition to maintaining existing strength, we can also increase muscle mass and regain lost muscle with regular strength training. Improve¬ ments in muscular strength and endurance make everyday tasks, such as opening jars and getting up from the floor, easier. Don’t become too concerned with looking like a body builder, though. Most women and people over the age of 50 lack the amount of testosterone needed to develop large muscles.
Strength training also retards aging. One study asked college-age students to identify which older adults, all belonging to the same age group, looked most youthful: those who strength-trained, those who swam, or those who ran. The overwhelming response was that those who lifted weights looked the youngest.
Strength training, when combined with sensible eating habits and moderate aerobic exercise, facilitates weight loss, decreases body fat and helps keep weight off. Muscles are a furnace that burns calories. Some experts suggest that one pound of fat burns only 3 to 5 calories a day whereas a pound of muscle burns 35 to 50 calories a day. Thus, the more muscle mass we have, the more calories we will burn while at work or rest. People who have a higher percent of muscle mass have a higher resting metabolic rate than sedentary individuals and thus are burning more calories.
Here are some additional benefits derived from strength training:
Decreases arthritic and lower back pain. Muscles provide structure around the joint, creating an internal brace to support and also lessen the load on the joint.
Increases bone density. When strength training, the muscle pulls on the bone, requiring the bone to remodel itself to get stronger and provide a more solid base of support. The integrity of the bone is directly related to the forces applied to it. If a person lives a zoolike existence, their fragile bones will break easily against the slightest force.
Improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Diabetes is increasing in the United States at alarming rates. The physical activity that strength training provides improves the way the body utilizes sugar and will lessen the risk of developing diabetes.
Improves mobility and functional ability. Maintaining or regaining strength allows us to do what we want to do, when we want to do it.
Improves balance and prevents falls. Having adequate leg strength allows us to catch ourselves when we trip, preventing a fall and perhaps a broken bone. Strength training also increases bone density so that the bones can withstand the impact of a fall better. In addition, it will be easier to get up if we do fall.
Improves posture and self-image. Strength training correctly can reverse the Dowagers hump and other outward manifestations of poor posture. Proper strength training can assist us in regaining an upright youthful appearance.
Combats depression. Studies have found that older people who strength-trained for ten weeks had reductions in depression and improvements in self-esteem. This suggests that strength training gives a sense of empowerment and the idea that it is never too late to improve.

What is Strength Training?

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, strength training is defined as the use of progressive resistance methods to increase one’s ability to exert force or resist a force. Basically, strength training is challenging your muscles in a sensible and progressive manner.
It is critical to use muscles in the manner they were designed to be used; unused muscles will no longer work efficiently. Use it or lose it has real meaning for older adults. In strength training, it is not where you start that is important but where you end up. I have had numerous students start my class unable to get out of a chair without the use of their hands, but after performing some of the exercises in this book, they can now sit down and get up from a chair with ease, walk around the mall all day or even get down on the floor and play with the grandkids.

Different Types

Strength training can take many forms, from lifting your own body against the resistance of gravity to using weights or exercise bands to challenge your muscles. Many people confuse the terms weight lifting, weight training, strength training and progressive resistance exercise.
“Weight lifting” is a competitive form of strength training using Olympic-style lifts such as the “snatch” and the “clean and jerk.”
“Weight training” is the process of lifting weights, whether they are dumbbells, barbells or weight machines.
“Strength training” is the application of resistance to movement to increase one’s ability to exert force. The muscle does not know nor care what is providing the resistance, so engaging in a method that you enjoy is the key to success. This can include the use of anything from weights to exercise bands to even the resistance of the water.
“Progressive resistance exercise” is when a person progressively overloads the muscles (by making the load and movement more difficult) by adding more resistance as the move gets easier. The load can be applied several ways: with weights, exercise tubing or, in water, hand paddles.
The following is a cute example of progressive resistance exercise:
Begin by standing in a comfortable position with plenty of room to move. With a 5-pound potato sack in each hand, lift your arms out to the sides 10 times. When that gets easy, grab a 25-pound potato sack in each hand and lift your arms 10 times. Once that becomes easy, start placing potatoes in the sack. Or another method is to buy a Great Dane puppy and then lift it every day. As the puppy gains weight, your muscles will get progressively stronger to adapt to the new heavier load.
While that was meant to be humorous, it does represent the theory behind progressive resistance exercise: Start at a comfortable load and slowly try to complete more reps each time, adding more load as your muscles get stronger and the movement gets easier.
Several methods are available to develop strength, muscle mass and muscular endurance. The most common technique is isotonic progressive resistance exercise. The other methods are called isometric and isokinetic progressive resistance exercise.

Isotonic Progressive Resistance Exercise

Isotonic progressive resistance exercise is the most traditional method of strength training, generally using free weights, barbells or machines that utilize stacked weights or even exercise bands. Isotonic exercise is convenient; the down side, however, is that it does not accommodate to changes in strength at different angles. Muscles can be stronger or weaker depending on the angle engaged. As the muscle contracts along the range of motion, the angle of the joint affects the strength at that angle.
To test the concept of your muscle’s strength being dependent on the angle used, try placing a heavy jug of milk in each hand with your arms alongside your body. Now try to curl your hands towards your shoulders. Did you notice that at certain points/angles the milk jug seemed heavier than at other angles? The weight did not change but the angle made the weight feel heavier at certain points.
Isotonic moves are involved in most of our daily activities, from lifting a bag of groceries to picking up a grandchild.

Isokinetic Exercise

In isokinetic exercise, you contract the muscle through the full range of motion against a resistance lever at a prescribed speed and load. Generally, isokinetic exercise machines are more expensive than isotonic machines and devices.

Isometric Exercise

Isometric exercise involves exerting muscular force against an immovable object, creating a static contraction. This method is often used with extremely weak individuals and with people with ailments such as arthritis, where movement of the joint is not desired. This type of training will not significantly develop muscle size or muscular endurance but will develop strength at the joint angle in which the exercise is performed. The advantage of isometric exercise is that it does not require equipment. The disadvantages are: it can raise blood pressure to dangerous levels; the strength gain is specific to the angle the move is performed; there is little transfer of strength to functional skills or sports.

Excerpted from Weights for 50+ by Dr. Karl Knopf. Copyright © 2006 by Ulysses Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Ulysses Press. $14.95. To order click here.

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