Dear Savvy Senior: I’ve fallen several times over the past year and my doctor has recommended that I start strength training to help prevent future falls. But at age 72, I’ve never lifted weights before and could use some help. — Looking for Help
Dear Looking: Weak leg muscles and poor balance are two of the biggest factors that cause seniors to fall. Most people, after age 40 lose about one percent of their muscle mass each year, which really adds up over time. But study after study has shown that it’s never too late to rebuild muscle through strength training.
Regular resistance or strength training can help you build muscle strength, increase your bone density and improve your balance, coordination and stamina, and will help prevent falls. It can also help reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic conditions, like arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, back pain, depression and obesity. And some studies even show that it helps improve cognitive function. Here are some simple ways to help you get stronger.
After you get your doctor’s OK, consider using a professional trainer or physical therapist for a few sessions to develop a safe and effective routine. Or go to GrowingStronger.Nutrition.Tufts.edu for a free program from Tufts University in Boston and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Also see Go4Life.NIA.NIH.gov, a resource created by the National Institute on Aging that offers a free exercise guide that provides illustrated examples of exercises you can do at home. Order a free copy online or by calling 800-222-2225.
To improve strength you have to exercise at least two or three days a week for 30 to 45 minutes, and increase resistance and the number of repetitions over time. Give your muscles a day off between workouts. It makes the muscle stronger and more able to resist injury.
If you work out at home, you’ll probably need some equipment. While some exercises can be done using body weight (like push-ups, sit-ups and leg squats), hand weights, ankle weights, medicine balls, resistance bands or rubber tubing, are great tools. You can find these at sporting goods stores, or online at Amazon.com for $10 or less. Cans of soup, water bottles or plastic milk containers filled with water or sand can also be used as hand weights for resistance.
Aerobic, balance exercises
Some other good fall-prevention exercises that can help you get stronger include aerobic activities like walking, cycling or water aerobics. And to improve your balance there’s tai chi. Simple balance exercises can also help. These include standing on one foot for 30 seconds then switching to the other foot, and walking heel-to-toe across the room.