Pumping iron good for seniors

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— A group of Steamboat seniors attest to what research is showing: You're never too old to pump iron.

Members of the Senior Balance and Exercise class at Yampa Valley Medical Center report a host of benefits from resistance training. The exercise class, led by Peggy VanVliet, met two days per week during the winter months. The seniors worked out in a circuit format one day. The second day's routine consisted of group balance and strength exercises using resistance bands, balls and hand weights.

Participants claimed improvements in their balance, walking up and down stairs and increased endurance for daily chores and recreation. Lucy McGregor, an avid snowshoer, claims her stamina for snowshoeing has improved.

"I used to be able to go a couple of blocks. Now, I can snowshoe up to an hour, depending on the hill," she said.

Others agreed that the camaraderie of the group and encouragement from their instructor help keep them going. "My mental attitude has improved since exercising, and I'm particularly inspired by one member of this group," said Ann Kehoe, glancing toward 93-year-old Helen Thoney.

Helen also can feel the effects. "Since I've been attending strength classes, I can stand up straighter and I'm not afraid to lose my balance," she said.

Research studies show what our local friends already know. Strength training at any age is beneficial, but it may be especially important for seniors. As we get older, we tend to lose muscle mass and strength at increased rates. Around the age of 70, strength loss may be so significant that it limits the kind of activities an individual can do. Everyday activities may become demanding or impossible to carry out.

Significant muscle-strength loss (medically termed sareopenia) may make carrying groceries into the house, going up and down stairs, getting across the street or even getting out of bed difficult or impossible. Loss of muscle strength may also contribute to osteoporosis and decreased balance, adding increased risk for falling.

When routine tasks take so much effort, people tend to be less active and further function may be lost. Loss of strength often leads to falls and fractures in the elderly, further limiting the ability to live independently.

Studies with subjects in their 60s to 90s have shown that weight training for several months stimulated the muscles to build in size and strength. Even the very frail elderly in nursing homes were able to improve their level of independence by strength training two or three times per week over a three-month period.

Strength training offers additional benefits, including boosting energy and speeding up one's metabolism for better weight control. Group sessions also provide enhanced well-being through social interaction and motivation.

Some seniors have medical problems or joint injuries that may make it unsafe to participate in weight training. Others may require training modifications and/or close medical supervision. Anyone considering beginning a weight-training program should consult a physician first.

Everyone is unique. Strength training should begin gradually and be suited to individual needs and circumstances. Learning proper weightlifting techniques in a safe environment is very important. If your doctor clears you to participate in a strength-training program, consider going to a physical therapist or joining a class geared for seniors and taught by a qualified health and fitness professional.

Marti Irish has a master's degree in physical therapy and works for SportsMed at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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