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Don’t Resist Resistance Training – Senior Planet from AARP

by Editor

You may remember the 1977 film Pumping Iron,  which brought resistance (AKA strength) training into the mainstream.  It was often the favored workout of the young. Muscular gym bros and (later) young women joined the trend.

Resistance Training for Seniors

No longer. Researchers have found so many benefits to resistance training that experts say it’s become a vital part of an exercise program for all ages and body sizes and both genders.

What is Resistance Training?

Resistance training is a form of exercise meant to increase muscular strength as well as endurance. It can involve using weights (free weights or machines), resistance bands or your own body weight to provide the resistance.

Forget Aesthetics, Think Health

Although muscle sculpting is considered the primary goal of resistance training, that’s not accurate, says Mark D. Peterson, PhD, MS, the Charles E. Lytle, Jr. Research Professor at the University of Michigan-Medicine, Ann Arbor. He coauthored a 2019 position statement from the National Strength and Conditioning Association about the benefits of resistance training for older adults.

The benefits go far beyond aesthetics, he says. “Prevention of osteoporosis for women is one of the main reasons we recommend it,” Peterson says. That’s also important for men as they age, he added.

As muscles become stronger, another benefit is prevention of falls, saying “If you can prevent falls, because you are stronger, you can prevent fractures.”

Paige Waehner, a certified personal fitness trainer who wrote Strength Training for Seniors, summarized other benefits: improved sleep, increase in the feel-good hormone dopamine, decreased pain, better ability to walk up and down stairs, get in and out of a vehicle or  carry groceries.

Mayo Clinic experts add to that list, saying that strength training can also enhance quality of life by increasing the ability to do things and be mobile, and decreasing symptoms of depression.

Resistance Training: First Steps

Someone who has never done resistance training should seek “hands-on” guidance, Peterson advises. Check out experts at your community recreation center, the Y, or your gym – it’s much better than self-prescribing. The pro can also check your form, to be sure you’re doing the moves correctly.

In general, Mayo Clinic suggests, pick a weight heavy enough to tire your muscles after doing 12-15 reps; but expert input is suggested before starting.

How Much Resistance Training?

Adults should aim for 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity a week and 2 days of muscle-strengthening activity, according to the Federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. “Those workouts don’t have to be long,” Waehner says. “You can work all the muscle groups in about 10 minutes and that’s enough to get the benefits out of resistance training.”

Do I Have to Wear Myself Out?

The old “no pain, no gain” attitude is out, Peterson points out.  Think lower weights, higher volume: “For most people, low to moderate effort with strength training is enough.” He recommends progression, with increasing the effort as you go along. He’s honest—most people tell him they notice the most benefits early in the program and then the results seem to taper down.

Resistance Training Results

Improvement in strength can be achieved with just 2 or 3 sessions a week of 20 or 30 minutes, according to Mayo Clinic.  Exactly how soon results will be evident can vary from person to person.

Does Resistance Training Help Weight Loss?

Peterson notes that it’s not necessarily effective for weight loss, but it does help your body’s muscle-fat ratio. “Because you increase your muscle mass, it decreases your overall relative fat stores.”

Paige looks at it this way: “When you lift weights, your muscles respond by building more muscle fibers, so you can build lean muscle tissue. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more you have, the more overall calories you burn. That means you are on the road to weight loss.”

Staying Motivated

“Motivation is one of the hardest parts of this whole thing,” Peterson says. Especially if you do the workout at home. “There’s a million reasons to walk right past those hand weights.”

One key to stay motivated: Accountability to others, whether a friend, partner, or part of a community that supports you. It can be in person or on line, Peterson says.

Senior Planet offers support and community through its many courses online and with the examples set by our 2024 Senior Planet Sponsored Athletes. – learn about them here!

The other key: goal setting. For instance, you might keep at it because you want to ramp up your running speed. Strength training will help, Peterson says. Or you might compete with yourself to increase the number of squats you do in a minute, or ride your bike without getting tired. Whatever goal works for you, put it to work for you.


How do you stay motivated?  Has Senior Planet programming given you help or encouragement?  Share your experience in the comments!

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based independent journalist, specializing in health, behavior, fitness and lifestyle stories. Besides writing for Senior Planet, she reports for WebMD, Medscape, MedCentral and other sites.  She is a mom, mother-in-law and proud and happy Mimi who likes to hike, jog and shop.
Doheny photo: Shaun Newton

This article offered by Senior Planet and Older Adults Technology Services is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency call 911 immediately.


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