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No, It’s Not Dangerous –Strength Training for the Older Adult

By Karyn Gallivan, MS, ATC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, NASM-CPT
Contributor, Sports+Fitness Network

OlderAdultsStrengthTrainingFor many older adults, growing older seems to involve an inevitable loss of strength, energy, and vitality. This does not have to be the norm, though, because the decrease in strength and energy along with the onset of the frailty we associate with aging can be reversed with appropriate strength training programs. Loss of muscle mass, and subsequent weakness, are known to predispose the older adult to increased risk for injury, decreased functional capacity leading to lack of independence, and increased co-morbidities. The great news is that strength training for this population has been proven to improve muscle strength and coordination, helping to maintain functional capacity and independence. As a health and fitness professional, you are in a unique position to design and administer safe and effective resistance training programs to a population (U.S. adults >50) whose current participation in this type of activity is very low. Strength training programs, appropriately designed and administered, can provide continuous and functional adaptations, which lead to improved risk factor profile, body composition, functional strength, and overall wellness.

The increases in balance, bone mass, strength, and cardiovascular fitness are often enough to help the older adult maintain their independence as the age. It is easy to design safe and effective strength programs for every adult, even those with orthopedic and metabolic diseases. Those with co-morbidities are especially successful in reaching new levels of strength and vitality, as this type of training has been shown to reduce the symptoms of metabolic diseases and arthritis. With this in mind, it is essential to understand that many of today’s trendy workouts such as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), Crossfit, P90X, among many others, are generally not appropriate for this population. In addition, one of the most often make mistakes with the exercise prescription part of this planning process for the older adult is to not respect some of the basic safety concerns and weak links that these clients bring with them.

Weak links can include one or more of the following issues; co-morbidities, orthopedic history, standing balance, hip, knee & ankle stability, and neck & back issues. In addition, there are several safety concerns that a personal trainer should always be aware of. The older adult has a decreased ability to tolerate hot and cold environments, react to external stimuli, and their balance is often compromised for a variety of reasons. Also, their neuromuscular control and gait are often challenged or impaired, there is an increased risk of injuries, and maybe most importantly, additional recovery time is often needed. Because of all of these potential issues, specific physiologic consideration must be given to the process of writing an exercise prescription while keeping all of these challenges in mind.

Far from being the personal trainer who wants to limit my clients in any way, I want them to understand that they have the ability to reach any goal that they may have. As I often am known to tell people, it just may take a bit longer to get there. The great thing, with training, however, is that no matter how long a client has been deconditioned, or how many issues they may bring to the table, the body has a tremendous capacity to heal and strengthen, thus adding years of improved functional capacity to countless lives.

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