Stronger living
Senior LivingGuest Columnist

Stronger living

The only way to taste the fountain of youth is to lift weights.

(Photo by Mikhail Nilov via Pexels)
(Photo by Mikhail Nilov via Pexels)

“Can you open this jar for me?”

“Can you carry my laundry down the basement stairs?”

Are these questions you or a loved one have asked recently? As a physical therapist, I see people every day who have lost the ability to do things they love because they lost strength. I am asked every day what helps to combat aging.

My reply is simple: The only way to taste the fountain of youth is to lift weights.

Strength training is the single most important type of exercise as you age. To understand why, we need to understand what happens to our bodies with age.

At around age 35, we begin to lose muscle mass. On average, 10% of muscle mass is lost per decade. This loss of muscle leads to a decline in activities of daily living, such as climbing the stairs or carrying heavier loads like groceries or grandchildren. People stop going down on the floor, stop playing sports and stop challenging themselves physically because of fear and weakness.

Sadly, in many aging adults, muscle weakness makes their world a smaller, less enjoyable place. Many have an increasingly difficult time getting out of a chair, climbing the stairs and opening jars. However, you can combat these effects of aging by lifting weights.

Along with aging comes a decrease in bone density; your bones get weaker with less activity. According to Wolff’s Law, your body lays down bone when it is exposed to stress. Things that cause your body stress are high-impact activities like jumping, marching, stomping — and lifting weights. Weights stress the muscles, which attach to bones and cause bones to deposit more bone. Not only does lifting weights make your muscles stronger, but it also makes your bones stronger, too!

How heavy do the weights need to be? When choosing the appropriate weight, you should determine how much weight you can lift at one time for one repetition (“one-repetition max”). The amount of weight you should lift is 60%-80% of that amount. For example, if you can squat and lift a 20-pound weight one time, then 20 pounds is your one-repetition max. To find your daily amount, take 60% of 20 pounds, which is 12 pounds.

For healthy aging, it is recommended that older adults lift weights two times per week, with seven or eight repetitions, with the last repetition feeling difficult to lift. Aim for two or three sets of each exercise.

My rule of thumb is, if you can lift 12-15 repetitions easily, it is time to increase the weight.

Increasing the weight over time is what helps you continue to make strength gains.

If you have been lifting the same amount of weight for a long time, your body does not perceive it as a “stress” and all of the benefits of gaining strength and bone density plateau. The muscle may improve endurance or the amount of time it can lift that weight, but it needs to be continually stressed to gain strength.

Exercises to challenge your larger muscle groups are squats, deadlifts, weighted heel raises, a pulling exercise like a lat pull-down, a pushing exercise like an overhead press and a weighted carry.

If you’re wondering why each of these exercises is recommended, think about the everyday activities that each exercise may help to improve. Squats help you get out of a car or a low bench at a restaurant easier. Deadlifts allow you to pick up a laundry basket or grandchild from the floor. A pulling exercise simulates grabbing something off of a high closet shelf, and a pushing exercise can simulate loading dishes into the cupboard. Weighted carries allow for carrying your suitcase or groceries.

It’s not inevitable that you lose out on the activities that you love as you age. Including weightlifting in your regular exercise routine is the single best thing you can do to maintain strength, fitness, independence and, ultimately, fun throughout your lifespan. PJC

Jessica Neiss is a physical therapist with 20 years of experience. She owns To Life! Therapy & Wellness, a Center in Squirrel Hill that offers physical therapy, occupational therapy and exercise classes for older adults and people with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis.

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