How many times per week should older adults lift weights?

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!


Does Vitamin D supplementation decrease the risk of fractures?

When people think of reducing the risk of fractures, they automatically think of calcium supplementation. We’ve all heard of women in their 50’s and 60’s being told by their physician’s to start taking calcium to prevent bone mineral loss and to decrease the chance of developing osteoporosis. So why take vitamin D? There are two reasons for supplementing with vitamin D. First, a deficiency in vitamin D can lead to softening of the bones and second, vitamin D is essential for proper calcium absorption. In other words, you could be supplementing with calcium but not absorbing it properly. This is why many calcium supplements come with vitamin D.

How much vitamin D is enough to offset the risk of fractures? A recent publication in the New England Journal of Medicine set out to answer just this. They reviewed and analyzed data from 11 randomized studies of vitamin D supplementation in adults aged 65 and older and assessed hip and non-vertebral (not located in the spine) fractures. The findings from 31,022 people suggested that only a high intake of vitamin D (792–2000 IU/day) leads to a significant reduction in the risk of fracture. This reduction was approximately 30% for hip fractures and 14% for non-vertebral fractures. The authors also found that those who were most vulnerable i.e. those aged 85 and older and those with low baseline levels of vitamin D, had the greatest benefit from vitamin D supplementation. The most interesting part of the study was perhaps that a smaller amount of calcium supplementation (<1000 mg per day) with the highest intake level of vitamin D was more protective against fractures than a higher calcium intake.

This study highlights the need for taking calcium in conjunction with vitamin D. Further, it highlights the importance of taking high doses of vitamin D to actually reap the benefits of supplementation. Again, this is most beneficial for those who are at high risk for fractures i.e. it might not be beneficial for those without the risk factors of older age and low baseline vitamin D. Interestingly, vitamin D levels tend to be quite low among those living in Canada and other developed countries. One way to increase vitamin D is by getting natural sunlight as this synthesizes vitamin D in the body.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE: If you are at high risk for fractures, be sure to supplement your diet with vitamin D as well as calcium (please consult your physician first). Higher doses (approximately 800 IU/day) seem to be optimal for protection against fractures. After starting such supplementation, be sure to do some follow-up tests with your physician to ensure that you are taking the optimal dose of vitamin D. Another great way of ensuring you maintain bone mineral density is through weight bearing exercise, a topic I will cover in a future article.

Don’t let low bone mineral density become a problem in your life. Remember, you have control of your HALF!