Picture a weightlifter. It’s a good bet the person who just popped into your head is Arnold Schwarzenegger or someone like him.
Decades after earning seven Mr. Olympia titles, “Ahnuld” remains an icon of muscle. However, the hope is that another person will come to your mind by the time you reach the end of this article — the person you see when you look in the mirror.
“What?” you may ask, “Weightlifting at my age?”
As any good Minnesotan would say: You betcha.
Nearly every able-bodied person can benefit from weight training and possibly no population could use those benefits more than those of us who are, give or take a decade, the age of the now- 70-something Schwarzenegger.
We’ll discuss specific benefits in a minute. First, let’s clarify what we mean by weight lifting.
What is it?
Another term for weightlifting is resistance training, a form of exercise in which you move your torso and limbs against resistance with a specific purpose: to make your muscles stronger. While resistance training often includes barbells, dumbbells and machines, none of these things are required.
Resistance training can be done with bands or just your own body weight. Have you ever picked up a child or a companion animal? Sat down in a chair and immediately stood back up? Done a push-up? Then you’ve already engaged in this form of exercise.
Personal trainer Sal Di Stefano, a founder of MindPump — a San Jose-based company with a worldwide following that promotes common-sense fitness strategies for ordinary people through a popular fitness podcast, videos and guides — has spent about half of his two-plus decades specializing in men and women ages 60 and older.
He loves doing resistance training with older adults because “they are consistent, they tell great stories and they get phenomenal results.”
That’s right. You can get stronger — at any age — even if you haven’t picked up a dumbbell in your life.
“No matter how old you are, you do not have to get weaker with age,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its free online guide Growing Stronger: Strength Training for Older Adults, created in partnership with Tufts University. “Strength training can help you stay vital, strong and independent throughout your life.”
Why you should
Resistance training’s main benefits, which aren’t about being buff, include:
Physical protection: As you know, seniors are at risk for a variety of disabilities, frailty and falls. They’re also susceptible to chronic conditions, including osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, sarcopenia and diabetes.
One way, arguably the best way, to prevent all of the above is through resistance training. Even one or two sessions week, properly and appropriately applied, Di Stefano says, help increase bone density, promote a robust immune system, enhance hormonal functioning and guard against common injuries and ailments that occur more commonly as we age.
Increased mobility: Some beginners worry about becoming “muscle-bound.”
This is a myth.
To add a significant amount of muscle, one must train intensely over a long period.
We’re not talking about copying a young Schwarzenegger here. In fact, increased strength directly helps a person move more freely, with less pain and better balance. This is foremost about function, not aesthetics.
Weight control: Resistance training can affect appearance — not typically by bulking up a body, but by making it leaner overall as well as more efficient: Stronger muscles burn more calories than do flabby ones.
Resistance training helps speed up metabolism and control blood sugar.
There’s a reason bodybuilders are lean, and it’s not because they spend all their time walking.
Mental health: Resistance training is a great form of stress relief. Increased cognition — including clarity of thought and possibly even better memory recall — is another common effect.
Earlier this year Australian researchers — in a study of 100 participants at high risk of Alzheimer’s disease due to mild cognitive impairment — found that weight training can protect the parts of the brain vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.
The University of Sydney study showed that six months of strength training slowed, and even halted, degeneration in the brain a year after the exercise.
In the study, the solution wasn’t pills or puzzles or daily cardio. It was lifting weights.
Gretchen Reynolds, writing in The New York Times in response to a review of dozens of scholarly studies, said, “Resistance exercise often substantially reduces people’s gloom.”
In other words, lifting weights can help combat depression and a depressed mood. It’s also empowering to see and feel the progress you can make with a consistent commitment.
Independence: Strength training may enhance your quality of life and improve your ability to do everyday activities, says the Mayo Clinic: “Building muscle also can contribute to better balance and may reduce your risk of falls. This can help you maintain independence as you age.”
Being able to carry groceries, lift a grandchild, stand up, get up, pick things up and push things away — resistance training promotes functioning needed for autonomy.
How to start
Resistance training, Di Stefano says, is “the single best form of exercise a person can do, hands-down. It directly combats all of the adverse health effects we experience as we age.”
That is if the resistance training is done properly.
As with any new activity, consult with your doctor before starting a program of resistance training. After you get the all-clear, here are tips to get you started:
Find an expert: Hire a personal trainer — someone to show you correct form and help you create a plan tailored to your body and needs.
Many trainers allow you to work with a partner or two, lessening the hourly rate per person. Your gym or senior center might offer classes and these can be helpful. Just make sure you receive individual instruction. After some months working with an expert you can go solo. (Note: If you try on your own, make sure to consult credible sources for demonstrations. The National Institute for Aging and the Mayo Clinic offer how-to diagrams and videos on their websites. See tinyurl.com/nih-strength or tinyurl.com/mayo-strength.)
Start slow: Not only do you not need to push yourself to the point of pain, you’ll gain more strength if you start slow and increase intensity over time.
You should experience little to zero discomfort beyond the challenge of doing something new. Start with one session a week. The first one might be no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Later, you could add a second day, and later still, possibly a maximum of a third, aiming for two or three sessions of 20-60 minutes each per week.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends resistance training two-plus days a week for able older adults.
Focus on form: You may wonder: Can I hurt myself? You can. You can also hurt yourself crossing the street — if you don’t do it properly.
Resistance training, correctly and appropriately performed, is “safe, even for people with health problems,” says the CDC.
The upshot: Not engaging in resistance training may, in fact, be more risky. When you allow your muscles to atrophy, you leave yourself vulnerable to other forms of pain or instability.
“There is far more risk,” Di Stefano says, “in not doing it.”
Use what you have: You don’t need access to a sprawling facility with pools, saunas and a smoothie bar.
You can perform resistance training with your own body weight, inexpensive resistance bands, dumbbells and barbells, or even soup cans; the possibilities are many.
Di Stefano starts older clients with body-weight exercises such as a bench- aided squat, a supported lunge and a back row using a lightweight resistance band.
Keep in mind that you may have greater access to equipment than you think. Many Medicare supplement and advantage plans offer gym reimbursements or no-cost monthly memberships at certain fitness facilities.
Increase difficulty: You get stronger one of two ways: by increasing resistance or by doing more repetitions. Again, taking it slow is the best way to go.
A general rule: Any movements you can’t do more than once with good form are too hard and those you can do correctly 30 times are too easy. Aim for 8-14 repetitions.
Enjoy the challenge: Just as you don’t have to be Meryl Streep to have a role in a play — and you don’t have to be Kent Hrbek to play catch with a child — you also don’t have to be Schwarzenegger to get the benefits of resistance training.
Tom Swift, a certified powerlifting coach, is the award-winning author of Chief Bender’s Burden. He holds a master’s in community health education, and a master’s in creative nonfiction. He lives and lifts in Minneapolis. Read more of his work at untethereddog.com.