Glossy magazines may promote weight lifting as the key to looking buff, but the real benefits of weight lifting can be much more practical when it comes to everyday living.
For heart-attack or osteoporosis patients, or for those who are simply combating the aging process, functional strength training can rebuild muscles and slow muscle loss, a process that begins at about age 30 and accelerates after 75, according to studies at the University of New Mexico.
When Sam Reitz began weight lifting, the last thing on his mind was bodybuilding. Reitz came out of rehab for a heart attack two years ago feeling weak. Even routine activities like climbing stairs were a chore.
"I was losing muscle because of some of the medications I was taking. Even things like going up and down the steps, I felt older. I don't feel that way anymore, says Reitz, a 75-year-old Medford resident. "On occasion, I now take two steps at a time."
Like many elderly patients, Reitz wanted a weight-lifting program that would help build strength for his daily activities. He chose a program at Medford-based Baxter Fitness.
"Functional strength is your ability to accomplish your activities of daily living. So that's getting out of a car, getting out of a bathtub, climbing stairs "… so we're better off doing movements we can replicate in the real world," says Andy Baxter, owner of Baxter Fitness.
For heart-attack patients like Reitz, weight lifting can significantly improve the quality of life.
"If you have a limited oxygen output, you want to be able to take up that oxygen as efficiently as possible. By building muscles through anaerobic training, you develop more muscle surface area, more ability to use available oxygen," explains Baxter.
Reitz works out 45 minutes a day, 5 days a week, using a combination of cardio training and functional strength exercise machines.
The basis of Baxter's strength-training program is what he calls "compound movements."
"In compound movements you're always going to have at least two axes of rotation, two joints in movement at a time. The potential is there to override the joint and put too much strain on the joint and connective tissues, rather than in the muscle. So we're much better off doing a (compound movement like a) leg press," says Baxter.
Baxter has condensed the usual 10 to 15 weight stations into three machines that use compound movements, plus a recumbent, hand-cranked bicycle machine. The bicycle motion gives his clients a cardio workout while working wrists and shoulders together.
Several of Baxter's elderly patients are recovering from joint-replacement surgery. Focusing on compound movements works especially well for them.
"The joint that's replaced, it's going to be bomb-proof. There's nothing wrong with the joint itself, but if you don't have the musculature to support that joint, you're going to have that same problem, which is a loss of function," says Baxter.
Falls are the most common cause of bone fractures in seniors, and many of these falls are exacerbated by osteoporosis, a severe case of age-related bone loss. Weight training can be a key to preventing fractures.
Personal trainer Carol Lee Rogers teaches several classes for seniors, many of whom either have osteoporosis or are at risk of developing this disease.
"It's all about fall prevention. We focus on strengthening their quad muscles: doing chair raises, squats, lunges, and as we're strengthening these muscles, we're going to have better balance," says Rogers.
As people age or become more sedentary, says Rogers, routine activities like grocery shopping or walking to the curb to retrieve the mail become more difficult. Weight training can reduce the chance of falling by improving muscle endurance.
Upper-body strength is also important — not only for balance, but for being able to complete activities most people take for granted, such as housecleaning or lifting a small grandchild.
"I primarily work with free weights and straps and body — being able to use your body as the weight. Pushups are great, you don't need anything but your own body," Rogers says.
The payoff, says Rogers, is not always what happens, but what doesn't happen.
"I'm told over and over again by my students, 'I was tripping over a curb and I caught myself and I didn't fall,' " says Rogers. "That's all a result of fall prevention, and we can only prevent it with strong muscles in the legs."
For more information on aging, muscle loss and rebuilding muscles, visit www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/sarcopenia.html.