Dear Savvy Senior,
I've fallen several times over the past year and my doctor has recommended that I start a strength-training program to help prevent future falls. But at age 72, I've never lifted weights before and could use some help. What can you tell me?
Looking for Help
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 too like arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, back pain, depression and obesity. And some studies even show that it helps improve cognitive function too. Here are some simple ways to help you get stronger.
After you get your doctor's okay, consider working with a professional trainer or physical therapist for a few sessions to help you develop a safe and effective routine you can continue on your own. 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 to strengthen your body. You can order your free copies online or by calling 800-222-2225.
To improve your strength you have to keep stressing your muscles, so you'll need 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. But be sure you give your muscles a day off between workouts. It makes the muscle stronger and more able to resist future injury.
If you work out at home you'll probably need to invest in some equipment. While some strength training can be done using your own body weight (like push-ups, sit-ups and leg squats), hand weights, ankle weights, medicine balls, resistance bands or rubber tubing, are all great tools for strength training. You can find all these products at sporting goods stores, or online at Amazon.com for around $10 or less. Cans of soup, water bottles or plastic milk containers filled with water or sand can also be used (like small hand weights) for resistance.
If you don't like exercising alone consider joining a gym, or call your local senior center to see if they offer any strength training exercise classes.
You should also check out SilverSneakers (SilverSneakers.com, 888-423-4632) or Silver&Fit (SilverandFit.com, 877-427-4788), two fitness programs offered in thousands of fitness centers, gyms and YMCAs throughout the U.S. that offer special classes designed for older adults. These programs are available for free to seniors that have certain Medicare supplemental policies or Medicare Advantage plans.
Aerobic and 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, along with a number of simple balance exercises that you can do anytime like standing on one foot for 30 seconds then switching to the other foot, and walking heel-to-toe across the room.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.