Forget a gentle walk. Older people should be using dumbbells and building muscle, according to a public health expert
If you thought old age was a time for gentle walks and light stretching, think again. Experts are now saying that people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who lift weights and do daily resistance training will protect themselves from a range of ills brought on by ageing and could even prolong their lives.
Sir Muir Gray, the former chief of knowledge for the NHS, believes that dumbbells and resistance bands “should be standard” for older people, and that exercise for conditions such as arthritis could be “far better than most medications”. Exercise scientists at the University of Maryland found that weightlifting can improve insulin sensitivity, which lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, and reduce pain from arthritis.
Why is weightlifting so important as we age? Once we hit our mid-30s the muscle mass in our bodies drops at a rate of 1 to 2 per cent a year. Our bone-mineral density declines and ligaments become less pliable. By 70, most sedentary people have lost a quarter of the muscle they had in their 30s. Weightlifting or resistance exercises can prevent and even reverse many of these physical effects, says Joe Newbold, a trainer who oversees senior conditioning classes for David Lloyd gyms.
“Diminishing strength affects balance, range of motion and posture,” he says. “A simple strength programme of exercises using your own body weight for resistance, like step-ups, press-ups against a wall and lunges two to three times a week, combined with regular walking, cycling or swimming for aerobic fitness, can vastly improve your health in just a few weeks.”
Research at King’s College London found that people who continue to exercise in their 70s are as fit as those in their 50s. With similar amounts of exercise, there is little difference between cyclists aged 79 and those aged 55, found lead author Professor Stephen Harridge. “It is not ageing itself which brings about poor function and frailty, but the fact that people have stopped exercising and are no longer active,” he says. According to a study at University College London, older people who exercise at least once a week are three to seven times more likely to be classed as “healthy agers”. The researchers said that significant health gains were seen “even among participants who became active relatively late in life”.
Working out needn’t take over your life, either. Strength sessions for 10-15 minutes, performed two to three times a week, and three to four half-hour walks can make a profound difference to your health.
Zoe Mundell, an osteopath and trainer launching senior fitness classes at the Reebok Sports Club in London this month, says that retirement is a good time to step up your exercise as you may have more time: “There are so many advantages to staying fit as you get older and they are not just physical gains. Group exercise boosts the mental health of many older people and even an hour a week of aerobic activity can lessen the risk of dementia and generally improve the mood.”
Mundell also sees her older clients with boosted self-confidence. “They just feel so much better about themselves,” she says.
All these exercises can be done by beginners. Start with 2kg weights and move to heavier ones once they feel too easy and are not challenging you enough. Before you start, warm up with some walking on the spot, and try to do ten repetitions of each exercise with a minute’s rest after each one. As you get fitter, you can increase the number of sets you do of each exercise. Try to perform this routine three times a week, and if possible combine it with plenty of walking, or perhaps some swimming and biking. You can buy packs of resistance bands and sets of dumbbells online or in sports shops.
Step-ups: Builds bone density in legs
Stand straight with one foot on a low bench and one on the floor. Step up with the lower leg. Return to the starting position.
Repeat 6 times, then change leg
Bicep curl: Prevents bingo wings
Take a split stance, keeping a slight bend in both knees, and hold a light weight in each hand. Starting with arms by your sides, bend at the elbows, drawing the hands up towards your shoulders and then lower them back to the start position.
Repeat 10-12 times
Reverse lunge: Good for ankle and knee joints
Stand upright with feet slightly apart, chest lifted and stomach muscles tight. Step one leg backwards, bending both the front and back leg into 90-degree angles (if possible) through flexion at the hip, knee and ankle joints. Do not allow the front knee to pass over your toes. Come back to your start position.
Repeat 10-12 times on each leg
Lateral raise: Protects against hunching
Standing with legs apart, hold light weights down by your side. Slowly raise the arms to shoulder height, keeping hands facing the floor and arms straight. Hold for a couple of seconds before lowering back to the starting position.
Repeat 8-10 times
Bent-over dumbbell row: Builds bone mass in arms
Stand upright, feet shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in the knees and a weight in each hand. From this point tip forwards from the hips, keeping your back flat and reaching your arms forward. From this position, bend at the elbows, bringing the weights towards your upper body and pulling your shoulder blades together while keeping your elbows as tight as possible to your sides. Return arms to the starting position.
Repeat 12 times
Russian twist : Good for balance
Sitting on the floor with knees bent and feet flat, lean back until you start to feel tension in your abdominals, raising your toes and place your hands out in front of you, holding a light weight with both hands. From this point twist as far round to the right as possible without twisting your lower body to achieve the rotation, and come back to the centre start point. Repeat this on the left side to complete one repetition.
Repeat 10 times. To increase the difficulty of this exercise, raise your feet 5-7cm off the ground to make for a less stable surface.
Glute bridge: improves strength when walking
Lie on your back with legs bent and upper body and feet flat on the floor. From this position lift your hips off the floor, squeezing your glutes at the top point before lowering back to the floor.
Repeat 12 times