Elderly benefit from weight training

On Call

March 25, 1997|By Dr. Simeon Margolis | Dr. Simeon Margolis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I have remained in good shape at age 66 by jogging regularly for the past 10 years. A recent magazine article indicated that I might benefit from adding weight lifting to my exercise program. Is that true?

More and more studies have shown that sarcopenia -- loss of muscle mass -- is a common and serious problem that accompanies aging, and that this loss can be prevented and even reversed by weight training. In both men and women muscle mass peaks between ages 30 and 35 and then begins a slow decline. By the time they reach age 70, most individuals have lost at least 20 percent of their muscle mass; much of it is replaced by fat.

Loss of muscle tissue is accelerated in women at the time of menopause. The decrease in muscle strength can be accompanied by impaired balance, which increases the chance of falling and breaking bones.

Aerobic exercises like walking, jogging and cycling can help prevent coronary heart disease and strengthen bones to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Such aerobic exercises, however, have little effect on muscle strength and size. Resistance exercises or training (also referred to as strength or weight training and isotonics) is needed to prevent sarcopenia. Instruction in such training, which involves movements using weights, weight machines or working against gravity, can be obtained from fitness programs, cardiovascular rehabilitation programs and from health clubs or gyms.

In a program at Pennsylvania State University, muscle strength doubled and even tripled in some, during a 12-week period of resistance exercises for large muscle groups, like the shoulders and hips, in 60- to 72-year-old men who were previously sedentary. Even more dramatic was the report of a weight training program in 100 nursing home residents whose average age was 87. At the end of 10 weeks the participants were able to increase their physical activity significantly and to improve their ability to walk by doubling the strength of their leg muscles.

Although this last study suggests that almost everyone can benefit from and safely undertake exercise training, individuals with any chronic disorder should be sure to check with their doctor before undertaking such a program.

Dr. Margolis is professor of medicine and biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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