Resistance training may benefit some aspects of psychological well-being in older adults, according to new research from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

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Muscle-strengthening activities could boost psychological well-being among seniors.

The researchers — who reported their findings in the journal Quality of Life Research — came to this conclusion after studying the effect of 9 months of resistance training on psychological functioning in a group of not very active older adults.

Physically active older people tend to live longer and have lower rates of many non-communicable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart and circulation diseases, and several types of cancer, say the World Health Organization (WHO). Physically active seniors also have higher levels of fitness and a healthier body composition.

To this end, the WHO recommend that healthy people aged 65 and over do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic physical activity, in bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time. They should also, on 2 or more days each week, engage in muscle-strengthening, or resistance training, that involves the major muscle groups.

The new study investigated the effect of 9 months of frequent resistance training — that is, muscle-strengthening exercises that use weights and resistance bands — on psychological as opposed to physical well-being in this age group.

“The importance of resistance training for the muscular strength and physical functioning in older adults is well-known,” explains lead study author and doctoral student Tiia Kekäläinen, “but the links to psychological functioning have been studied less.”

The team recruited 106 healthy people aged between 65 and 75 whose level of aerobic physical activity fell below that recommended by the WHO. None of them had received training in muscle-strengthening before.

They randomly assigned the participants to one of four groups: three resistance training groups and a non-training group (the controls). All the training groups underwent familiarization and practice in resistance training twice per week for 3 months.

After the familiarization period, the three training groups continued with progressive resistance training for another 6 months. One group practised this once per week, another twice each week, and the third, three times every week.

The participants completed assessments of psychological functioning three times over the 9-month study: at baseline (month 0), after completion of 3 months of familiarization in resistance training (month 3), and at the end of 6 months of progressive resistance training (month 9).

The subjects also gave information about their levels of aerobic physical activity at these times and underwent assessments of physical strength.

The assessments of psychological functioning included measures of: quality of life (using a WHO questionnaire); sense of coherence (using an Antonovsky scale); and symptoms of depression (using a Beck depression inventory).

The quality of life measure that the team used examines how individuals perceive their position in life relative to their expectations, goals, concerns, and standards within the context of their culture and values system.

It captures four quality of life domains: physical, psychological, social, and environmental. “Of these domains,” note the researchers, “especially the physical domain tends to decrease with age.”

Sense of coherence is a concept that was originally proposed by the sociologist Aaron Antonovsky several decades ago. His salutogenesis theory defines health as being more than just the absence of disease. It proposes that health is a position on a spectrum that has “ease” at one end, and “dis-ease” at the other.

According to Antonovsky, sense of coherence is a “life orientation” that reflects how people see themselves able to make their lives “meaningful, manageable, and comprehensible.”

The researchers behind the new study suggest that sense of coherence might therefore “be seen as a health resource, because it reveals how people perceive life and use their resources to cope with stressors.”

The results of the study showed that at month 3, environmental quality of life improved in the resistance training groups compared with the control (non-training) group.

The environmental domain in the quality of life questionnaire seeks to measure how satisfied people are with their environment, physical safety, and the ease with which they can “access different services,” such as “leisure activities, health services, and public transport.”

At the end of the 3 months of resistance training, there was also a slight improvement in sense of coherence in the training groups compared with the controls. However, this was not statistically significant.

What was significant was the improvement in sense of coherence after 9 months of resistance training, although this was only seen in the group that trained twice per week.

The team suggests that perhaps sense of coherence takes longer to develop and for resistance training to have an effect in this domain it needs to be longer than 3 months.

The results suggest that older adults’ ability to manage their environment and life could be improved by resistance training.”

Tiia Kekäläinen

The researchers propose that future studies should examine whether these changes remain over a longer period. They should also look at the extent to which frequency of training — as opposed to continuity — has the biggest effect.