There seems to be this idea that, as we age, frailty and loss of energy are inevitable. However, these can be symptoms of something that is highly preventable: muscle loss.1 What is the primary cause of muscle loss? Inactivity!
Everyday activities like climbing the stairs, carrying groceries, playing with the kids or grandkids, or cleaning the house don’t have to become more difficult! Strength training is the answer to this common problem, and no, it’s not just for the gym buffs.
We’ll be taking you through the many benefits and some sample exercises with the help of Tufts University’s book on the Growing Stronger exercise program. The book is a completely free, accessible, and research-driven guide that can help you regain your strength and your independence.
Because the exercise program offered in Growing Stronger has been tested in its entirety, this article should not serve as a replacement. It simply highlights many key components of the program to showcase how fitness can be an easy and progressive addition to your lifestyle regardless of age.
The Physical Benefits of Strength Training for Older Adults
Strength training can help alleviate the symptoms of many chronic conditions and diseases.1 Seguin and colleagues identify the following benefits for several common conditions:
Arthritis: Reduces pain and stiffness, and increases strength and flexibility
Diabetes: Greater control of your blood sugar levels
Osteoporosis: Builds bone density and reduces the risk of falls
Heart Disease: Reduces cardiovascular risk by improving lipid profile and overall fitness.
Obesity: Increases metabolism, which, in turn, burns more calories and aids long-term weight control.
Back Pain: Strengthens back and abdominal muscles. As a result, stress on the spine is reduced.
Safety Tips and Recommendations
As with any new exercise program, it is important to consult with your doctor to make sure that your exercise plan is safe for you and that it aligns with your other health goals. Once you are sure you can proceed, there are still some safety recommendations the Growing Stronger authors would like you to consider:
- Shoes with good support are a must. The recommendation here is that you choose rubber soles that aren’t too thick because thick soles can cause you to trip.
- The weights you use are another important consideration. You don’t want to start with anything too heavy. The numbers may not look impressive, but it is the safest way to transition from body-weight exercises to exercises that involve weights. The authors recommend pairs of dumbbells in the following weights:
They also advise that you choose adjustable ankle weights because you will be able to more freely alter what you’re working with.
3. Store your weights on the ground or at ground-level storage. This eliminates the possibility of the weights falling on you if you are attempting to reach them from a high storage location. You can even leave them in a wheeled cart for easier access.
4. A commonly cited piece of advice (but one still worth mentioning) is that you should aim to exercise every other day to allow your muscles to rest. You can also alternate muscle groups (legs one day, upper body the following day) to avoid overworking a single muscle group.
5. Perhaps the best thing you can do is to be attentive to the aches and pains in your body. Don’t work out if your muscles feel strained or if you feel unable to safely exercise.
Effective Exercises to Start Rebuilding Strength
The book offers a detailed breakdown of multiple exercises and even plans them in stages. Once you have completed the first stage (about 2 weeks), you will be able to move on to a more difficult set of exercises. Here are just a few of their recommended exercises divided by difficulty level.
Stage 1 Exercises
Stage 1 exercises should be performed for 2 to 3 weeks before moving on to Stage 2. For each exercise, perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions with a 1-minute rest period in between sets.
You may already know how to do a basic squat; it is essentially the act of sitting down, without actually sitting down. This exercise is great for strengthening the hips, thighs, and glutes.
Placing your body weight into your heels (as opposed to you leaning into your toes), lower into a seated position and rise back up to your standing position. Be careful not to let your knees come forward past your toes. You can choose to actually sit on a sturdy chair as you perform this exercise and to use your hands to guide your motion until you get stronger.
These are just like regular push-ups except your feet are planted on the ground and you are pushing off the wall. This is still a great way to strengthen your arms, chest, and shoulders, without having to get down on the ground.
Also known as calf raises, this exercise strengthens your calves and restores your balance. Stand tall and with your feet flat on the ground. Using the back of a chair (or another stable surface) for balance, rise onto your toes and settle back down.
Stage 2 Exercises
Stage 2 exercises should be performed for 2 to 3 weeks before moving on to Stage 3. For each exercise, perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions with a 1-minute rest period in between sets. If you find yourself able to complete 10 repetitions easily, and with proper form, consider increasing the weight of the dumbbells or ankle weights for your next set.
The biceps curl is a great strengthening exercise that also helps improve your grip strength. Using your lightest set of dumbbells, lift the weights by bending at the elbow and bring the dumbbells towards your shoulders. Your palms should be facing you. You may do this from a seated or standing position.
This exercise works the muscles in your arms, upper back, and shoulders. It simplifies tasks like reaching for items in high locations. From a standing or seated position, hold a dumbbell in each hand and bring the weight up towards your shoulders (as though you just did a bicep curl). Rotate your wrists so that your palms face away from you. This is your starting position for the Overheard Press.
With controlled movement, push the dumbbells up above your head until your arms reach full extension. Then return the dumbbells to your shoulders. Do not actually rest the weights on your shoulders.
Side Hip Raise
The muscles in your hips, thighs, and glutes are putting in the work with this exercise. Not only can the Side Hip Raise shape your lower body, it can also strengthen your hip bones which are more vulnerable as you age.
Using a stable surface for balance, stand with your feet slightly apart and your toes facing forward. You may have ankle weights added to increase the difficulty. Without locking your knees, lift your leg out to the side, pause for a moment, and lower your leg back to the floor.
Stage 3 Exercises
For each exercise, perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions with a 1 to 2-minute rest period in between sets. Again, if you find yourself able to easily and properly complete 10 repetitions, consider increasing the weight of the ankle weights.
The muscles along the front of your thigh are the target of this exercise. It helps strengthen weak knees.
With your ankle weights fastened, sit all the way back in a sturdy chair with your toes pointing forward. Your feet should barely touch the ground. Flex one foot and extend your leg until your knee is straight. Then, lower your foot back to the ground. After you complete 1 set of 10, do a set with the other leg. Then start over to complete a second set for each leg.
If you strengthen the front of the muscle you should really strengthen the back as well. This exercise targets the hamstrings (the back of the upper leg) and pairing it with the knee extension can make walking and climbing stairs easier.
With your ankle weights fastened, stand behind a stable surface for balance with your feet just less than shoulder–width apart. Keep your foot flexed as you bring your heel towards your butt and pause for a moment before lowering it back to the ground. Do 1 set of 10 with each leg before starting on your second set.
The Complete Guide
If these exercises were exactly what you’ve been needing, the complete Growing Stronger guide contains even more. Let us know in the comments below if you try it out! If you’re ready to step things up, come check out our Silver Sneakers program. In this group class, you’ll work on total-body conditioning in an instructor-guided setting where you can still go at your own pace.
For more information on healthy living in older adulthood, read our registered dietitian’s answer to this question on Protein Advice for Seniors. Or, for a boost of motivation, read Paul and Karen’s success story who say the gym is like their fountain of youth! To access our monthly blog post highlights, subscribe to our newsletter, today!
- Seguin, Rebecca A., et al. “Strength Training for Older Adults: Growing Stronger.” Www.CDC.gov, Tufts University, 2002, www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/downloads/growing_stronger.pdf.