4 Muscle-Building Exercises for Aging Gracefully
Aerobic exercise is important, but strength training keeps you spry and reduces your risk of falling.
By Wyatt Myers
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
- Strength-training exercises reduce symptoms of many chronic conditions, including diabetes, depression, and arthritis.
- Building muscle increases your flexibility and balance, which makes you much less likely to fall and become injured.
- Regular strength training can help you get better sleep.
Building muscle comes with its fair share of jokes — think Saturday Night Live’s Hans and Franz who want to “Pump! You! Up!” — but strength training is actually one of the best ways to improve your longevity. It can also reduce symptoms of many chronic diseases, such as arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, back pain, and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unfortunately, the majority of American adults age 45 and older aren't meeting the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) muscle-building recommendations, according to a study published in September 2014 by the CDC.
Both the HHS and CDC recommend that Americans 65 and older do strengthening activities at least twice a weekthat work all major muscle groups: the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms. And if you're concerned that strength training means lifting gigantic weights or learning how to bench press, don’t be. You can do toning exercises that are low impact but will still build muscle.
Experts now realize just how important toning exercises are to your overall health and longevity. "Every health professional will agree that strength training is essential for health, injury prevention, and prolonging quality of life," says certified strength and conditioning specialist Cody Foss, director at the NYA Sports & Fitness Center in Newtown, Connecticut.
In fact, the more muscle mass you have, the longer you'll live, according to a study published in June 2014 in the American Journal of Medicine, in which researchers found that study subjects with the highest muscle mass were significantly less likely to have died than subjects with the lowest levels of muscle mass.
What's more, in a study published in August 2012 in the British journal BMJ, 317 participants ages 70 and older were taught how to incorporate strength training and balance activities into their everyday routine, while another group took part in a structured exercise program. A third group did only gentle exercises. Researchers found that the group that did strength and balancing activities lowered their rate of falls by 31 percent over 12 months compared with those who did gentle exercises. The first two groups also achieved much better balance than the gentle exercisers.
"The major advantage of strength training is to keep older adults active and moving," says Glenda Westmoreland, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and a geriatrician at Eskenazi Health Center in Indianapolis. "Strength and resistance training help to reduce functional decline and loss of endurance."
Tips on Toning Exercises
If you’re learning how to build muscle for the first time, it's important to start slowly to avoid overexerting yourself, says Dr. Westmoreland. "The major consideration before embarking on strength training as an older adult is to make sure that, from a cardiovascular standpoint, you are fit to start," she says.
Always get the okay from your primary care physician before you begin a new exercise routine. If you have osteoporosis, and particularly if you’ve had compression fractures of the vertebrae in your back, you should get your doctor's permission before doing floor exercises.
Once you receive clearance from your doctor, walking is a good way to start. Then, as your fitness improves, you can incorporate some light strength-training exercises into your routine.
Simple Strength-Training Exercises
Val Walkowiak, the medical integration coordinator at Loyola Center for Fitness in Chicago, recommends doing the following exercises every other day to strengthen your core:
- Abdominal Twist Sit in an armless chair with your feet flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart. Your hands should be in the center of your torso and your elbows along your sides. Slowly twist to the right, then to the left. Your shoulders should face to the right and then to the left during the movement, but you should not be swinging your arms from side to side. Do two to three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
- Lying Abdominal Crunch Lie on your back with your legs bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands by your ears. Keep your elbow and shoulder joints aligned during the movement. Slowly curl your upper body upward until your rib cage comes up off the floor. The goal is to create a "C" with your torso by bringing your chest toward your legs. Don't let your lower back come up off the floor, just your rib cage. Perform two to three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
- Pelvic Tilts Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Pull your belly button in toward your spine until your abdominal muscles feel tight. Slowly shift your pelvis up toward the ceiling until you feel your lower back press against the floor. Your buttocks should not come off the floor. Return to starting position. This exercise works the lower portion of the abdominal muscles.
- Bridges Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Pull your belly button in toward your spine. Slowly lift your torso off the floor until you’ve formed a bridge with your body. Your upper back, shoulders, and head should remain on the floor. Return your body to the floor and repeat. Perform two to three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
Adding a strength training component to your fitness routine doesn't have to be complicated, and the benefits to your overall health — including reducing your chances of falling and increasing your mobility — are more than worth the time it requires.
Marie Suszynski also contributed to this report.