Muscle Strength: The Key to Staying Independent

Medically Reviewed

Do you sometimes have difficulty rising from a chair or opening a jar? If so, it could be a sign of weakened muscles. Losing muscle strength over time is common: One to 2 percent of muscle mass is lost each year after we turn 50. Having a sedentary lifestyle can accelerate muscle loss, which can lead to osteoarthritis, bone loss, frailty, and loss of balance and coordination. Muscle strength can be an indicator of overall health and is critical for maintaining independence and performing activities like carrying groceries, climbing stairs, and lifting a basket full of laundry.

Statistics that need improving

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 10 percent of Americans ages 60 to 79 had below-normal muscle strength in 2011–2012. Among people 80 and older, 53 percent had below-normal strength. Among the key findings in the January 2015 NCHS Data Brief:

■ In total, 5 percent of adults ages 60 and older had weak muscle strength—a possible indicator of frailty—and 13 percent had intermediate muscle strength.

■ After age 80, women were considerably weaker when compared with men of the same age.

■ People of Asian and Hispanic origin were more likely to have reduced muscle strength when compared with non-Hispanic white and black persons.

The good news is that you can slow the rate of muscle loss with regular strength, or resistance, training. Even if you’ve never exercised before, you can still increase your muscle mass and strength with regular workouts incorporating weights, resistance bands, or even just your body weight.

Head-to-toe benefits

Regular strength training yields significant mental and physical benefits, from improving your mood and energy levels to increasing balance and flexibility and reducing the risk of falls, says Yasmin Dhar, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Harrison, N.Y., and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

“Strength training, which commonly includes lifting weights or performing resistance exercises, is more than just body building,” says Dhar. “Consistent strength training improves your body mechanics, helping you to move more easily. It also boosts bone density, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and can reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It can even help counter the effects of arthritis, back pain, and depression.

“There are two main types of strength training,” she adds. “Isometric resistance involves contracting your muscles against an immobile object. Push-ups and leg presses are excellent examples of isometric resistance and help build upper- and lower-body strength. The second type is called isotonic strength training, which involves muscle shortening and lengthening through a series of repetitive motions, such as lifting handheld weights, or using resistance bands.”

Making it about you

Consult your doctor before beginning a fitness regimen if you have any health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, or if you take prescription drugs. As with any exercise program, one size doesn’t fit all. The frequency, intensity, and duration of muscle strength training should be tailored to your abilities and goals to improve strength and function.