Few health concerns weigh more heavily on an older woman than fear of losing her independence. She may worry about becoming disabled as a result of falling, osteoporosis or increasing frailty.
For years, the prevailing wisdom was that women became weaker and weaker with age. But new information has turned that stereotype practically on its head, as we see evidence that even some of the frailest elderly women can increase strength, balance and even bone density.
This is no magic pill or potion — it is just strength training, also called muscle building, weight training or resistance training. Once the domain of oiled-up Mr. Americas who could lift the equivalent of five “little old ladies,” even a mild regimen of strength training can improve the health and quality of life of elderly women.
Burying the Stereotypes
Much of the spotlighted research on strength training was done at Tufts University and detailed in a book by Dr. Miriam Nelson, “Strong Women Stay Young.” The researchers looked at a group of women age 50 to 70 who began a moderate weight-training program.
The women lifted free weights (dumbbells and ankle weights) twice a week for 40 minutes a session. By the end of the study, the women gained an average of three pounds of muscle and lost about three pounds of fat.
Their strength increased an average of 75 percent and their balance improved 14 percent. Bone density increased by only about 1 percent, but the women in the control group, who did no muscle building, saw their bone density reduced by more than 2 percent.
Their improvements also made the women feel stronger and more confident. They became more active and engaged with life.
Benefits for Even the Frail Elderly
Other studies have looked at the effects of resistance training on women who were older, more frail and confined to nursing homes. They consistently showed increased strength, balance and flexibility. In its Consensus Statement on Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health, the National Institutes of Health wrote:
“Older people or those who have been deconditioned from recent inactivity or illness may particularly benefit from resistance training due to improved ability in accomplishing tasks of daily living. Resistance training may contribute to better balance, coordination and agility that may help prevent falls in the elderly.”
Two to three sessions a week and some inexpensive weights is all it takes to get you started. You do not have to join a gym. However, you probably should get a book or video or take classes so you can learn proper technique and avoid injury.
Most importantly, be sure to consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.