If your view of weightlifting is a muscle-bound 20-something football player grunting and grimacing over an impossibly heavy load of iron weights, it’s time to revise that vision. These days, all ages and both sexes lift weights to stay healthy – and that includes even the oldest of us, for whom weightlifting can help prevent the falls that so often lead to broken bones.
If you’re a woman age 65 or over, chances are formal athletic training wasn’t part of your experience growing up.
Title IX, the federal law giving women equal access to athletic opportunities, wasn’t enacted until the early 1970s – long after you’d graduated from high school. So while the boys were trotting out to the football field or baseball diamond after school, the most formal exercise you got was square dancing in gym class, or maybe doing splits on the cheerleading squad.
These days, of course, that’s all changed. Girls and young women start formal athletic training right along with boys, often even before they begin kindergarten. And for many sports, that training includes weightlifting. It’s the unusual female athlete these days who doesn’t know her way around a weight room – how to change the collar on a lifting bar, how to adjust pounds on a Nautilus.
And as it turns out, long after the ability or opportunity to play soccer, basketball, of softball disappears, weightlifting remains a viable option for staying fit. You can do it on your own, no teammates needed; you can tailor it to your particular health needs; and it certainly doesn’t need to be either expensive, or time-consuming.
Why should you, a 72-year-old woman, lift weights?
Because it slows (and can even reverse) the natural weakening of muscles that happens as you age. “Yeah, and…?” Stronger muscles lead to better balance, which means fewer potential falls. And even when poor balance has nothing to do with your fall (think tripping on a curb), stronger muscles can help you regain your footing and stay upright – avoiding the kind of hard, jarring fall that can lead to a devastating broken hip.
OK, I can see you’re still skeptical. And a big part of that skepticism is probably simply inertia, or fear of change. You’re happy with your daily walk around the block; you get regular exercise by doing daily household chores, and maybe pulling a few weeds in the garden. Why should you complicate things with a new exercise routine?
Because weightlifting helps more than your balance. Research shows that weight training also builds bone, reducing the risk of osteoporosis; cuts down on back pain and arthritis by increasing stability around your joints; and even lowers your risk for depression. In short, lifting weights can make you feel better both physically, and emotionally. ("The new medicine:," 2012)
But that’s not all. Lifting weights 2 or 3 times a week improves your cognitive function. It’s frustrating to lose your keys, your short-term memory, your ability to mentally multi-task; studies released in 2012 indicate that weight training can help older adults retain those abilities much longer than peers who don’t lift. And if you really get into it, 150 minutes of weight training weekly can cut your risk of type 2 diabetes by 34%. ("The new medicine:," 2012)
Finally, if you’re fighting the battle of the bulge, strength training helps you lose weight. The larger your muscle mass, the higher your metabolism; the higher your metabolism, the more calories you burn.
How do you get started? First, ask your doctor if weight training is appropriate for you. As we grow older, we learn the new routine that comes with our aging bodies, right? Always ask your doctor before starting a new physical activity.
The easiest and best way to start lifting is at a gym or rec center staffed by trainers who can show you the ins and outs of their weight-lifting equipment, and give you some beginners’ tips. If you have access to a local YMCA, check it out.
If you don’t belong to a gym and don’t want to join one, many senior citizen housing facilities offer an exercise area with treadmill, recumbent bike, and often a Nautilus or other weight machine. The machines include simple drawings showing how to use them.
Start with the lightest possible weight; when you feel comfortable with how the machine works, gradually settle on a weight you can lift 6 to 8 times in a row. While you may be able to lift 40 pounds with your legs one time, it’s better to lift 20 pounds 8 times. Don’t overdo; the last thing you need is a pulled muscle or strained tendon. Rest at least 30 to 60 seconds between each exercise.
Oh, and one more thing: as older adults, the biggest bang for our buck is to concentrate on those exercises that strengthen the midsection: hips, pelvis, back, and upper legs. These are the muscles that keep us stable as we walk (and occasionally stumble!) through our daily life.
(2012). The new medicine: muscle strength. Harvard Health Letter, 37(12), 1.