There is no doubt in the exercise science and health world that strength training (a.k.a. weight training or resistance training) is beneficial for older adults. In addition to increasing overall strength, it prevents bone and muscle wasting as you age. This is particularly important for older women. Women are at a higher risk of developing conditions such as sarcopenia (low muscle mass that increases risk of becoming dependent) and osteoporosis (low bone mineral density that increases risk of fractures) than men. In other words, they are more likely to require assistance to conduct activities of daily living such as cleaning, cooking and washing themselves, than are men. This is one of the reasons we see more women living in assisted living facilities (nursing homes) than men. Luckily, women can prevent this loss of independence if they routinely participate in strength training. While there are guidelines available on what you should do, there is some debate over “how much” you need to do to reap these health and fitness gains.
A recent study conducted by Farinatti et al. in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research set out to determine the difference in benefits from training once a week compared to training twice or even three times per week. Women over the age of 60 participated in 16 weeks of strength training and completed fitness assessments both before and after this training program. The training program consisted of 8-12 repetitions of 10 exercises conducted at an intensity of 60-80% of maximum measured strength. Only one set of these exercises was conducted at each session and weight (loads) was increased by 5% when the participant was able to perform more than 12 repetitions. Thus overall, participants who were in the group that exercised once per week conducted 8-12 repetitions of each of the 10 exercises at a weight that caused their muscles to fatigue completely. Those in twice weekly and three times weekly groups did this same exercise routine on one or two other days of the week. The authors found that generally, more was better. When looking at gains in strength, those who exercised three times per week had the greatest gains. Furthermore, those in the group who exercised three times per week also had the greatest gains in functional fitness. However, it should be noted that ALL GROUPS had significant improvements in strength and functional fitness i.e. just one set of high intensity strength training per week led to significant gains in strength and thus health!
TAKE HOME MESSAGE: As we age we lose muscle mass and increase our risk of becoming dependent on others. In order to maintain our independence it is essential to include strength training in our weekly exercise program. Research indicates that one set of 8-12 repetitions of high intensity strength training is sufficient to improve strength and functional fitness, but that doing this on 2 or even 3 days of the week will lead to greater benefit. So, if you are crunched for time be sure to include at least one set of high intensity strength training to your weekly routine. If muscle loss is of concern to you, do your strength training exercises 3 days/week. Remember, strength training is essential in ensuring your HALF!