Strength training for older women

Strength training for older women

If you’re over 65 and you think that strength training is not for you, it’s time to reconsider.

A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supports exercise for the elderly and says that too few older Americans participate in strength training activities.  For many people, the phrase “strength training” brings to mind sumo wrestlers, bulked-up Olympians with impossibly large barbells held aloft, or a certain California governor.  But strength training doesn’t necessarily mean weight training, and it isn’t just for the young and muscle-bound.

While it is true that we gradually lose flexibility and muscular strength as we age, that doesn’t mean that frailty is always inevitable. Diet and exercise contribute enormously to the aging process.  Many older women who believe that exercise is beyond them may be underestimating themselves, but if you are concerned that you are not healthy enough to become more active, consult with your doctor.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention encourages starting slow, with simple exercises done in the home; if beginners use weights, they should not exceed one or two pounds.  The CDC also backs a national health objective that would have 30% of US adults 65 and older participating in resistance training activities at least twice a week.  Currently, only 12% of Americans between 65 and 74 are involved in strength training and the exercise involvement rate continues to decrease with age.  Only 10% of those over 75 work to train their muscles.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends strength training for older adults primarily to improve overall health.  But there are many other benefits:

  • Resistance training, and the resulting added strength, can decrease the risk for falls and subsequent fractures and other bodily injuries caused by falls.


  • It can boost endurance and heighten the body’s sensitivity to insulin.


  • Regular physical activity can also help to slow or prevent osteoporosis and reduce resting blood pressure. So, older adults who engage in strength training activities protect themselves from domestic accidents and can live independently longer.


  • Active seniors lose excess fat.


  • Digestion is improved.


  • Lower back problems may be relieved.


  • Strength training can reduce arthritic pain.


  • Strength training and cardiovascular exercise lessen depression.


  • Heart functions become more efficient.


Older women are less likely to engage in the recommended amount of resistance training than older men, according to the CDC.  Only 9.5% of women over 65 do so, verses 13.3% of men.  Also, more educated older adults tend to be more active.  20.5% of college graduates participated in strength training compared to an 8.6% rate among high school graduates and 6.6% among those who did not graduate from high school.

Marriage also makes a difference.  Currently married elderly people perform resistance training at a rate of 12.0%.  Only 10.1% of those who are widowed, separated or divorced and 9.5% of those who have never been married do it.  And, perceived health status is a big factor.  Older Americans who think they are in good health are more than three times more likely (20.0%) to exercise than those who say that they are in poor health (6.1%).

But once older people get started, they tend to enjoy exercise.  One study, done with 1100 participants, reported that 95 percent of the seniors continued to strength train after completion of the study’s regiment.  The benefits of strength training in terms of health and mood were so drastic that the participants in this study thought that the payback was more than worth the amount of time and exertion required to exercise.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) offers an on-line book with advice on exercise for older Americans.  The book includes a description of the benefits of exercise, samples of advisable exercises for those over 65 and numerous resources pertaining to all levels of fitness.  However, it also encourages the use of the carbohydrate-based FDA food pyramid, which many experts believe to be out-of-date.

View the NIA book.

Strength training exercise is vital for women’s health, no matter your age.  Start slow and be cautious.  Be sure to consult with your doctor before beginning any health-altering activity, but be confident!  Many people remain active into their 80s and 90s, and even frail elderly people can see large increases in strength with light exercise.  If you need assistance, a therapist or trainer can help you begin training and improve or maintain strength. It is never too late to get stronger.