Retiring? Need a New Hobby? How About…Weightlifting!
The Elderly and Exercise
My Grandfather played tennis from adolescence up until age 90. It happened quickly. At 88 he was still a strong player for his age. Then the curvature of his spine curved to a degree where he was unable to lift his head to see the ball’s trajectory. His motor skills became sluggish: especially moving laterally. Since both of these are essential to the game of tennis, he, unfortunately, had to give up the sport he had played with passion for decades. As much of a loss as it was, my grandfather, as an engineer, was a born problem-solver. Instead of resigning to a solely sedentary life, he thought through it logically and determined that the best alternative was to start going to the gym. And guess what? My grandfather made a wise – as well as logical – decision. A decision many seniors should consider: even if never going to the gym in their life.
I know, I know: weightlifting at the gym bring to mind images of gym rats, bulging muscled superhumans, and the repeating shouts of “COME ON!” and grunts of all orders (yes, I have personal experience with this). However, in actuality, a very diverse group of people go to the gym. The YMCA I went to, for example, was attended by a fairly large group of elderly people. Not only did they go, they went seemingly every day.
Benefits for Seniors and Weight Lifting
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) supports these seniors’ decision to lift weights at the gym. They endorse the benefit of it, in fact, for adults ranging from 50 to 90-year-olds.
Gyms and lifting weights aren’t only for bodybuilders. Everyone benefits from it: especially the elderly. Chris Woolston, M.S. confirms this on the website HealthDay, through a study. He states, “A group of nursing home residents ranging in age from 87 to 96 improved their muscle strength by almost 180 percent after just eight weeks of weightlifting.”
Why It’s Important for Seniors
When one ages your muscles tend to weaken. The bones also start to lose density, making them brittle and, thus, prone to injury. Muscle strength helps protect the bones from injury. In addition, muscle strengthening helps you feel stronger: confident and less tentative in your movement. It also is a great natural mood enhancer, energizer as well as a great relaxant.
What Does Muscle Strengthening Do?
Weight lifting is a process of exerting your muscle to the point where it starts to break down. Don’t worry: that’s not bad. When resting, the muscle rebuilds itself, and after a while will rebuild stronger and bigger, depending on your routine. Some soreness should be expected, but that’s a good sign that you’re working the muscle. Just be patient and don’t overdo it at first.
So: are you convinced yet? Are you ready to start building your weight lifting routine? Well: let’s get going, then! The best place to start, of course, is finding a gym right for you. Let’s talk about that.
Acclimating to the Gym and Weight Lifting
There are many “types” of gyms. Though most gyms do not exclude memberships, some target different groups. Since we want your routine to be sustainable, it’s good for you to pick a gym you feel most comfortable spending time in. The YMCA may be a great place to start. They tend to have a welcoming atmosphere, and their mission focuses on diversity, family, and health. People of all stripes go to the YMCA, including a fair amount of seniors. If you’re like me, you probably won’t feel that comfortable in a more “bodybuilding” gym like Gold’s Gym. But check out what gyms are convenient to get to, are at the right price point, and what kind of facility they have. Some even have Senior citizen discounts. Remember: we’re gunning for the long haul, so gym choice is important.
However, even if the gym is welcoming, you may find it intimidating or overwhelming at first. What do all these machines do? What exercises should I include? How do they work? You’re not alone in these questions. People of all ages can feel daunted when going to a gym for the first time (including this blogger). It takes time. Soon enough, though, you’ll find your way around, get your routine down, which will give you a greater sense of belonging.
The gym is part of the beginning, however. Therefore, I’ve outlined some tips as you move through each step: beginning at the gym, what to do there, what kind of routine is best, how best to use the equipment, and so on. Hopefully, the information is useful, and help motivate you in making a commitment that will last.
Building Your Routine: How to Get Started
- Do Some Research: There are many kinds of weight lifting routines and techniques. Doing preliminary research is helpful for you to get better acquainted with your body’s physiology. Try to find resources targeted for seniors. Many routines may be intended for younger, more advanced, people.
- Talk with your doctor: This is crucial for seniors. Your doctor needs to both know your intention and also be able to advise what is healthy or not wise for you to do, depending on any conditions you may have. Doing research beforehand will also give your doctor something specific to respond to.
- Make an appointment with a physical trainer: For your first time, having a physical trainer show you around, demonstrate the machines and assess your current level is extremely helpful. Having a regular trainer isn’t necessary unless you’d like one, but they are helpful in introducing you to what the gym offers. This is, in fact, how I first learned about the machines and exercises at the gym. It was my first time, and that one session still informs my workout today
- Start slowly: Your body and muscles need time to adjust to new exertion. When lifting weights, start with lighter weights than you think. You want to first focus on your body alignment, proper technique, and lift in a way that your soreness the next day isn’t debilitating (I have certainly felt that kind of soreness. It hurts and may dissuade you from continuing).
- Use proper technique and alignment: I can’t stress this enough. I’ve seen so many people doing exercises in ways that will neither benefit them, are potentially dangerous, and just plain wrong. Some examples include: make sure when you lift up a weight to use your legs, keeping your back aligned. This will help protect your lower back especially. And when doing standing exercises such as bicep curls, make sure your body is properly aligned, your feet equidistant and firmly planted, and when your muscle starts to tire, to not compromise your alignment by jerking it up by leaning back, hunching your shoulders, and so on. SO many people do this: especially young men, it seems.
- Challenge yourself, but don’t overdo it: Soon enough you’ll start to feel comfortable with your routine. When this happens, your body naturally plateaus. The muscles get used to the exercise, and “learn” by reserving exertion. This is normal and happens to everybody. The best thing to do when at this point is to vary your exercise. Try different machines, different dumbbells, etc. To continue your progress, you need to “trick” your body
- Better safe than sorry: Always err on the side of safety. If something feels awkward or too much: back off. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself
But above all: have fun! Gyms can also be a great place to meet other seniors. I have often witnessed a group of friends who work out at the same time and have built a camaraderie. Other people can be motivating for you to keep going.
And if there’s a steam room at your gym? A good workout followed by a nice steam then shower? Oh, brother. Now THAT’s livin’!
- ‘Seniors and Weightlifting: Never Too Late’. January 20, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2016. https://consumer.healthday.com/encyclopedia/aging-1/misc-aging-news-10/seniors-and-weightlifting-never-too-late-647213.html.
For Further Reading
- Ades , Philip. Weight training improves walking endurance in healthy elderly persons. Annals of Internal Medicine. March 15, 1996: Vol. 124, No. 6, 168-171.
- Evans, William. Exercise training guidelines for the elderly. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: 1998, 12-17.
- Chalmers J et al. WHO-ISH Hypertension Guidelines Committee. 1999 World health Organization – International Society of Hypertension Guidelines for the Management of Hypertension. J Hypertension, 1999, 17:151-185.
- Manson JE, et al. A prospective study of walking as compared with vigorous exercise in the prevention of coronary heart disease in women. The New England Journal of Medicine. August 26, 1999, 650-659.
- Centers for Disease Control. Why Strength Training? May 2007. http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/physical/growing_stronger/why.htm