Muscle strengthening, sometimes called muscle building, is an activity that makes muscles do more work than usual during everyday life. You may use weights, resistance bands and body weight, itself, to work the major muscle groups.
Decline in strength
As we age, our muscles lose strength. It is easy to compound this naturally occurring loss of muscle strength with becoming less active.
If we ignore this decline, it may seem that “suddenly” we cannot do things we always took for granted. For instance, we may notice it has become hard to get up from the lounge chair. Actually, this weakening of lower body strength has been progressing over time, and now it has reached conscious awareness.
A 2015 report (Looker and Wang, 2015) notes approximately 90% of older adults ages 60-79 had normal muscle strength but only about half (47%) of those 80 and over had normal strength. When muscle strength was weak, at any age, about half (55%) reported difficulty rising from a chair. This decline with age calls for an earlier intervention – muscle strengthening activity – at an age prior to significant weakness.
Consequences of losing strength
Because maintaining our everyday wellness calls for maintaining muscle strength, therefore, we need to make deliberate efforts at strength-building. Upper body and lower body muscle groups play a role in what we do every day. For instance, can you turn your upper body fully to see what is happening behind or alongside you? This is important for driving or as a pedestrian walking in a parking lot, or crossing a street.
Can you get up from a chair without assistance of pushing on the arms or seat? Climb the stairs to your upstairs bedroom, or your friend’s front door? Step up onto the curb outside the restaurant? Can you reach up for a clothes hanger in your closet. Dishes on a shelf? Putting on and taking off a coat? These all impact safety and quality of life and, potentially, independence.
Recommendations for building strength
In the physical activity and health review of 2008 and the second edition of 2018, strong evidence pointed to the importance of strength-building, recommending
- Muscle strengthening involving all muscle groups at least two times per week.
All muscle groups includes: legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulders and arms. If you have not done such exercises in the past, you might consult with a physical therapist to get started, or a trainer affiliated with your YMCA, or an online video from National Institute on Aging (NIA) may help.
If this sounds like too much for you, remember the start-up is always slow! The great thing about exercise is that you begin with what you can do, and build from there. Progress comes with repetition as the body responds to your efforts.
The amount of weight involved is specific to each person. The aim is to work to the point where it is difficult to do more, and then stop. For instance, if you can easily do 8 repetitions with the weight that is right for you, you may push to do 10, then 12. When it is easy to do 12, because you are stronger, you may add a second set. Building muscle strength progresses slowly and steadily.
Trick question: What is better for you, working out with 2-pound weights or 10-pound weights? The answer – whatever is the right amount for you. If you want to determine where to begin, try out different weights at the local gym, or even at a retail store. See how you feel? Can you do repetitions without pain? If it hurts after once or twice, go to a lighter weight.
Other kinds of strength-building rely on lifting or moving your own body weight in specific ways, with repetitions, to get stronger. The point is to build upon your current level of strength. That will help you to maintain your strength, and possibly increase it.
Recovery with exercise works!
It is impressive how the body recovers with some effort. We are resilient!
If you have been relatively inactive in recent times, it is important to begin these activities slowly:
- To start, develop a plan, and write it down.
- Seek help from your physical therapist or other expert. You want to start with a few select exercises, not a dozen. Modify your plan.
- Begin with one or two days a week, at light or moderate intensity.
- Record what you did and what you thought about it. Modify your plan if necessary.
- Gradually, increase to two days a week, adding exercises for all muscle groups, as you are able.
- Slowly, add intensity.
As with all major behavior change activities, it is helpful to keep a log book to record your plan, track what you are doing on each occasion, and note what you think about it. You might write: “Arm exercises going well. At 12 reps. Add a second set next time. Add legs next time.”
If you are already moderately active, see if you are meeting current guidelines. If not, begin slowly to add as indicated above.
- Identify the muscle group(s) that you may have been missing in your current routine. Add those first.
- When you are able, increase to all muscle groups twice a weak.
- Increase intensity if you are able to do so.
Undertaking behavior change is always a challenge. You are helping yourself with muscle strengthening which will impact your health and reduce falls! Good for you!