Staying independent is a great incentive for maintaining strength as you age. Carrying groceries, opening jars, hauling mulch—it's easy to take routine tasks for granted when you can do them easily. Keeping your muscles and bones strong as you age improves your chances of continuing these tasks on your own and reduces your risk of falling.
Having more muscle increases your metabolism, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight. Since muscle is an active tissue, it uses up more calories compared to fat.
After age 20, most of us lose about a half pound of muscle a year. By the time we're 65, we will have lost 25 percent of our peak strength.
Don't Blame Aging
But you're not destined to grow softer and weaker just because you're getting older. Experts say most muscle loss comes from not using your muscles enough as you age, rather than aging itself. Using your muscles regularly will help them stay strong and firm, regardless of age, an important reason for older adults to strength train.
Studies have shown that men in their 60s and 70s who strength train regularly have muscles that look and perform as well as inactive men in their 20s and 30s.
How Much Training?
You can start building and regaining strength at any age. So if it has been a while since you've worked on your strength, don't worry. Research shows that even people who begin strength training in their 90s can gain muscle and strength in as few as eight weeks. Strengthening exercises involve working against a force which can come from your body, weight machines, free weights or barbells, a body bar, resistance bands, stability ball, or water.
To increase your strength, you should work the different muscle groups two or three times a week. These groups include your arms, legs, chest, shoulders, stomach, and back. The American Council on Exercise recommends starting with one set of 8–12 repetitions for each muscle exercise.
There are many other things you can do besides weight lifting to build strength. One example is old-fashioned calisthenics, such as push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups—now the foundation for the popular "boot camp" classes. Aerobic activities that build endurance—such as cycling, running, and certain martial arts and dance classes—are good leg-strengthening exercises.
Choose activities you enjoy so that you stick with it. Mixing up your workouts every now and then will keep you and your muscles from getting bored. If your fitness routine is focused on lower body strength, be sure to balance out your upper body with a workout too. For example, if you walk four or five times a week, add an upper body workout on the two or three days you don't walk. Try hand weights, a rowing machine, or push-ups.
It is important to "lengthen" or stretch muscles after you do a strengthening exercise. Stretching helps increase blood flow to your muscles, minimizes aches and pains and can help reduce feelings of tension or stress. Daily stretching, even for 10 minutes, will keep you limber and reduce your risk of pulling a muscle or getting some other injury.
Even though you're likely to see quick results, it is normal for these changes to slow down after several weeks of working out. Don't let this discourage you; stick with your program even though improvements are not as obvious. After several months of resistance training, most men and women will increase their muscular strength by 20 to 40 percent, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Take it Slow
Many people hurt themselves strength training by moving too fast. Choose lighter weights to start—three- or five-pound—and build up gradually. Muscles need time to repair. Don't train the same muscle group two days in a row.
A rule of thumb: If you can't repeat eight weight exercises in a row, the weight is too heavy. Try a lighter weight. If you can lift a weight more than 15 times in a row, the weight is too light—get one slightly heavier. Don't increase the weight you lift by more than 10 percent at any time. Remember to warm up with slow movement, such as marching in place, and cool down (stretch) your muscles each time you work out.
A good video, book from the library, or a health club instructor can show you how to lift weights correctly if you haven't done it before. Controlling your movements and having proper posture and form will keep you from getting hurt. You can check your form by working out in front of a mirror.
You don't have to lose your strength or muscle tone just because you're getting older. As long as you continue working your muscles, they'll continue working for you, by keeping you strong, fit, and independent.