A 97-year-old lady has been lifting weight for five years now. She is a client of Dr. Marilyn Moffat, a Full Professor of Physical Therapy in the Department at New York University, and an acknowledged leader in her field.
Said Moffat of her nearing-century-mark client, "She lifts 4-pound weights for her upper-body-strength regimen and 4 1/2 on her legs...She also rides her stationary bike for 15 minutes a day." That routine — combining strength training with aerobic conditioning — is a big reason the client remains "totally functionally independent."
And results like that are the reason health experts are urging a much wider swath of the population — including the elderly, the frail and the previously sedentary — to add strength training (also called weight training or resistance training) to their lives.
Workouts with free weights and machines, as well as exercises, such as sit-ups and leg lifts, in which muscles work against the weight of the body, are good for just about everyone, including people with most heart conditions, says a statement published this summer by the American Heart Association. The association also teamed with the American College of Sports Medicine this month on updated physical activity guidelines that urge most adults to engage in strength training.
It's the first time such exercises have been specifically included, along with aerobic activities and, for certain adults, flexibility and balance exercises. Those not physically ready to exercise at recommended levels should take a gradual approach, the guidelines say.
"It's a major turnaround" from the view that weight training might be dangerous or inappropriate for many people, says Bruce Craig, a physical-education professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Now that the advice has changed, the image of weight lifting needs to change, too, Craig says: "We're not talking about major bodybuilding."
Women in particular need to know "they are not going to end up looking like a man," says Jennifer Mieres, director of nuclear cardiology at New York University. "They are just going to end up being very strong and having well-toned muscles," stronger bones and, possibly, better weight control, she says.
But the greatest benefit may be an improved ability to do everyday tasks, such as getting out of a chair, carrying groceries or lifting your grandchildren, says Mark Williams, a professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha. He chaired the committee that wrote the heart association statement. "It can have a tremendous impact on the quality of one's life," he says.
Of course, everyone should exercise with care. If you are over 40 and inactive, Mieres suggests you check with your doctor before starting any exercise "more rigorous than brisk walking."
Some heart patients will need a thorough medical check before lifting weights, Williams says. Some will need to work with physical therapists or exercise specialists in cardiac rehabilitation programs. All should seek advice on how to lift safely, without straining or holding their breath. A few, including those with unstable heart disease, uncontrolled hypertension, arrhythmias, heart infections and Marfan syndrome, should not lift weights, the association says.
(Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder of the connective tissue characterized by disproportionately long limbs, long thin fingers, a relatively tall stature, and a predisposition to cardiovascular abnormalities, specifically those affecting the heart valves and aorta.)