Fit to play with Jim Johnson: Technology has put us to bed

  • Jim Johnson

Published: 7/4/2022 6:28:33 PM
Modified: 7/4/2022 6:25:54 PM

Fifty years ago I was in the audience when the famous back specialist, Dr. Hans Kraus, was asked whether a person with a bad back should stay in bed. Kraus scowled, shook his head, and said, “If you do that you take a well person with a bad back, put them in bed, and then take out a sick person with a bad back.” In the last 50 years technology has tended to put us to bed and has robbed us of the need to move. Inactivity creeps up on us, and with it a commensurate loss of strength and function. Normal activities become more difficult. The sofa seems lower and the stairs steeper. Energy fades. The combination of aging and inactivity results in a precipitous drop in functionality.

Regardless of lifestyle, you need strength to function. Every little thing we do, such as carrying in groceries, picking up trash or weeding the garden requires strength. If you are weak, these activities take an excessive toll, leaving you fatigued and unable to enjoy activities. And what if you want to live at a higher level, to continue doing those things you love? You are going to need strength.

Ask yourself how you want to live as you grow older. Are you ready to give up all those things you enjoyed when younger, and watch while others play? Are you content to watch the grass grow, or should you cut it yourself? Yes, we get weaker as we age, but we can reduce that drift. Maintaining and increasing muscular strength is one key to your well-being, to your independence. The decision to change requires a conscious choice. You can increase strength, and it’s not that hard, but it involves a commitment.

The good news is that it’s never too late. Some years back I started a research program on the effects of aerobic and strength training on adult women. Seventy women came into the gym three days a week for two years. The women, aged 26-75, were evaluated before and after. There was no surprise that all of the women became fitter, but we also learned that the oldest women changed just as much as the youngest. The older women increased strength by 20-30 percent, ending up as strong as women 20 years younger when they started. Improvement and age were not related. So when someone says they are too old to do strength exercises, I know they are wrong.

We often think of aerobic training as healthy training for adults. Sure, walking, biking and swimming are great and you need to do these, but these activities do not make you stronger. Strength training is different. A recent review of 663 studies of strength training for seniors has shown vast improvement in everything from arthritis to osteoporosis. Strength training works, improving the functionality of the body, balance, and mobility. Strength training maintains our independence and psychosocial well-being. A stronger body allows us to do more, increases our confidence.

You can develop your own home workout, but I think the easiest way to start strength training is to join a gym. Yes, you have to pay but the tradeoff is worth it. Gyms can be quite social and it’s a good idea to take a friend along. If you’ve never worked out in a gym before, the variety of equipment may be a bit intimidating. You may need some assistance at first but you will quickly learn to take care of yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Most gyms have a set of resistance machines designed to strengthen specific parts of the body. Do not plan to use all of the machines. You only need about six to get a decent workout. Focus on those exercises that use multiple joints. Aim for about 10 continuous repetitions followed by resting about two minutes, then repeat. There is no magic number; all work. Make sure you include at least one leg exercise. Once you learn the routine, you can do this in less than 30 minutes. Twice a week works, but go three times if you want to.

Eventually you may want to expand your workout, try some free weights or body weight exercises. Plan to do some exercises in the standing position. Standing exercises are more functional since they replicate the normal stresses on the body. This training improves your balance and helps prevent falling. Sufficient muscular strength is one key to independence. It is never too late to start.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at jjohnson@smith.edu

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