Turning Back Time

Strength Training For Seniors

June Scobee Rodgers has promises to keep – to herself and to her family. Twice a week for the past eight years she has participated in a group fitness class at the Sports Barn downtown. She does it to keep her mind and body toned for the adventure of living. “The calendar may say we are seniors, but none of us feel like that,” June laughs. “Thanks to these exercises, we don’t know about this aging process. We all feel young.”

“You can actually move to a point where you do feel young again,” says Frances Archer, June’s long-time instructor who is the aquatic director and the group fitness trainer at the downtown Sports Barn. “You can move like a young person, especially with stretching, moving all the joints every day. If you don’t, in as little as two weeks, once you’re over 55, you’re going to start losing muscle.”

Archer says strength training differs from body building in that it doesn’t seek to deliberately try to increase muscle mass, but aims to tone up existing muscles by lifting weights to maintain the upper strength we already have. Rodgers adds, “As we age, this strength does tend to decline and the less we use it, the more rapidly it declines. If we use it, even if it has declined some, we can regain it to some extent by having a regular practice of engaging those muscles and asking them to do things for us.”

Health Benefits

smiling elderly lady doing bicep curls with a weight

Scientific research confirms that strength training can slow and even reverse the aging clock. According to the Center for Disease Control, strength training is a safe and effective way for men and women to reduce the signs and symptoms of diseases associated with aging such as osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, back pain, sleep deprivation and depression.

Osteoporosis Prevention

Postmenopausal women can lose 1-2 percent of their bone mass each year. But after a year of progressive strength training only two days a week, a Tufts University study reported older women registered a 1 percent gain in hip and spine bone density, a 75 percent increase in strength and a 13 percent improvement in balance control.

Arthritis Relief

After 16 weeks of strength training, older men and women suffering from moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis reported an increase in muscle strength and physical performance, decreased disability, and a 43 percent decrease in pain. Their pain reduction was equal to and sometimes greater than the relief offered by pain medications. A similar effect has been shown in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Glucose Control

More than 14 million Americans now have type II diabetes. Besides causing heart and kidney disease, diabetes is also a primary cause of blindness in seniors. The good news is that strength training has been shown to play a significant role in helping older adults manage this disease. After 16 weeks of strength training, a study of Hispanic men and women saw dramatic improvements in glucose control comparable to taking diabetes medication.

Weight Management

Strength training can help with weight loss and long-term weight control. Iindividuals who have more muscle mass have a 15 percent higher metabolic rate. Muscle is an active tissue that consumes calories, whereas stored fat utilizes very little energy. Getting moving beefs up muscles to help burn up fat.

Depression and Sleep Improvement

Strength training, particularly in conjunction with aerobic exercise, produced improvements in mood comparable to the benefits of anti-depressant medications. This may be due to a greater feeling of strength, or it may be related to a biochemical change in the brain, or a combination of both. But older adults who did participate in strength training programs reported an increase in self-confidence and self-esteem which contributed to their overall quality of life. This included the ability to fall asleep more quickly, sleep more soundly, and sleep longer without the need for sleep medication.

Healthy Heart Tissue

When the body is leaner, the risk for heart disease is lower. According to one study, cardiac patients gained strength, flexibility and greater aerobic capacity as a result of strength training three times a week during rehabilitation. For this reason the American Heart Association now recommends strength training to reduce the risk of heart disease and as a therapeutic aid for cardiac patients in recovery.


The increase in strength can help older adults maintain their independence by prolonging their ability to climb stairs, carry groceries, open jars, carry laundry baskets, carry small grandchildren, and lift bags of mulch in the garden. “As an instructor,” says Archer, “I have people come to me and say, ‘When I first came to your class, I couldn’t go in the grocery store and gather up my groceries and then carry them back to my car. I had to get someone to take the groceries to my car for me. Then when I got home, I had to go in and get my husband to take them out of the car. Now I can do it.’”

Getting Started

Getting started in strength training is as easy as making a decision to improve your life today. Archer recommends these ten simple exercises that can easily be done at home several times throughout the day:

  1. Chair Dip – With a chair behind you, just barely sit down and then stand up.
  2. Side Arm Lift – Raise your arms from your sides up to your shoulder level straight out and then back down.
  3. Elbow Extension – Put your arm over your head, bring it down behind your head, as close to the center of your back as you can get it, and then put it straight back up with the elbow straight up in the air the whole time.
  4. Arm Curl – Arms are straight down at your sides. Keep elbows at your sides and bring the palms of your hands up to your shoulders. Put a couple of soup cans in your hands to add resistance.
  5. Ankle – Standing up, put your feet together and your knees together. Press your knees out over your toes and try to circle around your ankles like a little hula, and then go in the other direction.
  6. Back Leg Raises – Kick your bottom with your heel.
  7. Balance and Core – Lying on a bed or couch, feet flat, knees bent, very slowly pull the navel in very tight as if you are trying to touch your spine. Press your low spine down into the bed while keeping your tummy tight. Then blow out and relax.
  8. Wrists – Hold your hands out straight in front of you and make fists. Bend your knuckles down below the wrists and then up above the wrist, then bending them back and forth. This can be done with a light weight.
  9. Neck – Turn your head to the left and look over the shoulder, then slowly turn your head to the right and look over the other shoulder.
  10. Heart – Don’t forget the main muscle. Just walk around the room at a quicker pace for a minute and then rest at intervals. If you have trouble with hip or knee joint pain, consider exercising in water. Walk in a pool, walk forward, backward and sideward, moving your arms up and down and around.

The goal is to get all of the joints moving through their full range of motion every day to keep them stretched out. All of these should be done slowly and deliberately. “I have found consistently that if people think about the joint or muscle they‘re working as they’re exercising, they get a lot more benefit,” Archer says. “If they are watching TV and not paying attention, the benefit doesn’t seem to be as great. It also helps increase focusing abilities.”

Progressing to Classes

Being able to interact with other people, looking forward to seeing them and having them miss you when you are not in class is a great benefit of group exercise. In class, everyone will be doing the same exercise, but Archer recommends that beginners phase in more gradually; doing fewer repetitions at first and using lighter weights. Also, instructors can adjust the amount of weight and the amount of activity according to ability level.

After eight years in Frances Archer’s class, June Scobee Rodgers has grown many friendships. “That’s part of what keeps us going,” she says. “Some days I think I just can’t get up when it’s dark out and rainy, but then I think, oh, they’ll miss me. So I’ll get going and once I’m there, I’m so happy that I went.”

Whether you want to be able to carry your own groceries, pick up your grandchildren, or enjoy gardening again, strength training – whether at home or with a class – is the first step toward a stronger you and even a younger you. Don’t miss out on the little things, or the big things, at this special time in your life.

Marcia Swearingen has lived in Chattanooga for 30 years. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and is currently a board member of the Chattanooga Writers Guild. Marcia and her husband, Jim, have one daughter and live in Hixson, Tenn.
Marcia Swearingen
Board Member, Chattanooga Writers Guild

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