When you're over 50, committing to strength training twice a week is especially important — not so much to pump you up but to help in “building up and maintaining a level of muscle strength so that you can remain physically and mentally independent,” says Pamela Peeke, M.D., national spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). In other words, it's about functionality so you can perform ordinary daily activities on your own. And, no, your 50th birthday is not too young to start thinking this way.
“As we get older we begin to lose muscle,” notes fitness expert Bryant Johnson, who has trained Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, twice a week for the past 20 years. “You start losing muscle mass as early as your 30s, so at a certain age you need to be concerned with your balance and mobility.” The federal government's guidelines for older adults recommend muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.
So what happens if you understand all this intellectually but still haven't made it to the mat? Let's examine some of the reasons for your resistance and how to get over them.
Hang-up: Getting started
What helps: Define your motivation
"I always ask, ‘What's your why?’ “ Johnson says. “If you don't understand why you're doing it, you're setting yourself up for failure.” Maybe, says Peeke, you want to remain physically and mentally independent. Perhaps the whole point of picking up weights is for you to “be able to say, ‘I'm living an independent life, and I'm not beholden to anyone to pull me out of a chair.’ “ Or maybe, she says, you take your inspiration from imagining what is “joyful and meaningful” for you. For example, if you love traveling, think about how you want to be able to make it up the steps of the Parthenon. Johnson tells prospective clients that they have to be both “committed” and “thoughtful,” since coming back to their motivation for getting strong will get them through the actual workouts down the road.
Hang-up: It just seems hard
What helps: Start slowly, very slowly
So lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises feels onerous in a way that walking doesn't? Give yourself time to get strong, bit by bit — and don't expect results overnight. “It's all about showing up, mentally and physically,” says Johnson, who points out that a great place to start is doing as little as 10 minutes of weight lifting or resistance exercises twice a week. Peeke advises keeping things really simple, with just a couple of exercises and minimal equipment, to help you get over the hurdle of adding strength building to an existing cardio habit.
As she tells it, your first forays into muscle building could be as simple as using resistance bands for bicep and tricep curls, then adding planks and push-ups (which, she says, hit “six muscles at one muscle") soon after. You could start by, a couple of times a week, holding a single plank for as long as you can and doing five modified push-ups. Add another plank and five more push-ups a few weeks later, as you get stronger. If you keep at it, you'll start to notice the progress you've made — and not wanting to lose ground will help you stay committed.
Hang-up: You think you might hurt yourself
What helps: Get the facts and some assistance
First, know this: While it's true that your muscles may feel sore after weight training (that's a good sign you're working hard enough for them to get stronger), this kind of exercise shouldn't actually cause pain. “You will never have an injury or significant damage if you start very slow and allow your muscles to adapt and adjust,” says Peeke, who adds that this can be done by giving yourself a day off between strength training routines. What's also key, experts say, is starting at a reasonable place for your fitness level. When in doubt, start slow. Choose beginner-level online fitness videos from reputable sources, or look into online-coaching with a trainer who is certified by ACE (American Council on Exercise).
Hang-up: You struggle to fit it in
What helps: Lift some weights during TV commercials
To establish the routine of strength training, sometimes it helps to work in very short stints around some of your daily activities (bonus points if you work them into the time you normally spend doing especially sedentary activities.) For instance, you could lift hand weights or try sit-to-stands or planks during commercial breaks while watching TV, or you could do a few standing push-ups against the kitchen counter while you wait for your coffee to brew.