Exercise that builds muscle endurance, or resistance training, can help older adults to preserve their independence and quality of life. It can overcome the loss of muscle mass and strength, build resilience, ease the management of chronic conditions, and reduce physical vulnerability.

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A new position statement extols the benefits of resistance training for older adults and explains the mechanisms behind them.

Despite there being lots of evidence to support these assertions, many older people do not practice resistance training on a regular basis.

In an effort to address this lack of participation, a new position statement in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research summarizes the many ways in which resistance training promotes healthy aging.

The statement reviews published evidence on resistance training and uses it to recommend how to devise exercise programs to meet different needs.

"Too few of older Americans participate in resistance training, largely because of fear, confusion, and a lack of consensus to guide implementation," says the co-senior author of the statement Mark D. Peterson, Ph.D., who is an associate professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "

The authors explain that their goal is to support a more holistic approach as well as to promote the benefits of resistance training for older adults.

They also hope that by providing evidence-based recommendations, the statement will help to reduce fears and other barriers that prevent older adults from taking up resistance training.

Summary statements with practical advice

The position statement explains how to adapt programs to meet the needs of older adults of varying levels of ability, including those who require assisted living and nursing care.

The document takes the form of 11 summary statements arranged in four parts, each with a discussion of supporting evidence.

For instance, Part 1 comprises three summary statements that outline the key variables of resistance training programs for older people.

One summary statement recommends that such programs "should follow the principles of individualization, periodization, and progression."

Another summary statement suggests that programs should work toward "two to three sets of one [or] two multijoint exercises per major muscle group."

The intensity of the exercises should be "70–85% of one repetition maximum (1RM), two to three times per week."

In addition, the exercises should include some "at higher velocities in concentric movements with moderate intensities (i.e., 40–60% of 1RM)."

Evidence supports each recommendation

In their discussion of the evidence to support these statements, the authors include numerous studies that have examined intensity, volume, speed of movement, and power of resistance training protocols in older adults.

Part 2 concerns physiological adaptations. It explains, for example, how a properly designed program can counteract aging related changes in skeletal muscle and enhance muscular strength. It also describes the role of nerve and muscle systems and hormone systems.

Part 3 concerns the functional benefits of strength training for older people. It suggests, for example, that older adults who participate in properly designed resistance training programs can improve their resistance to injury and "catastrophic events, such as falls."

Part 4 outlines how to devise resistance training programs for people with chronic conditions, such as frailty and sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass.

Again, as for Part 1, the authors outline the evidence to support each of the summary statement recommendations.

"The evidence collected and reported in this Position Statement demonstrates the substantial health benefits of resistance exercise for older adults," conclude the authors.

"There is strong evidence," they add, "to support the benefits of resistance exercise for countering many age related processes of sarcopenia, muscle weakness, mobility loss, chronic disease, disability, and even premature mortality."

"Current research has demonstrated that resistance training is a powerful care model to combat loss of muscle strength and mass in the aging population."

Mark D. Peterson, Ph.D.