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

Published: 07/04/2022 18:28:33

Edited: 7/4/2022 18:25:54

Fifty years ago I was in the audience when the famous back specialist, Dr. Hans Kraus, was asked whether a person with back pain should stay in bed. Kraus frowned, shook his head and said, “If you do, take a healthy person with a bad back, put them to bed and then take out a sick person with a bad back.” Over the past 50 years, technology has tended to put us to bed and has deprived us of the need to move. Inactivity creeps into us, and with it a proportionate loss of strength and function. Normal activities become more difficult. The sofa seems lower and the stairs steeper. The energy vanishes. The combination of aging and inactivity results in a precipitous decline in function.

Regardless of lifestyle, you need strength to function. Every little thing we do, like carrying groceries, picking up litter, or weeding the garden, requires strength. If you are weak, these activities take too much toll, leaving you fatigued and unable to enjoy the activities. What if you want to live on a higher level, keep doing the things you love? You will need strength.

Ask yourself how you want to live as you get older. Are you ready to give up all those things you enjoyed when you were young and watch while others play? Are you happy to watch the grass grow or should you cut it yourself? Yes, we get weaker with age, but we can reduce that drift. Maintaining and increasing muscle strength is a 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 does involve commitment.

The good news is, it’s never too late. A few years ago I started a research program on the effects of aerobic and strength training on adult women. Seventy women entered the gym three days a week for two years. The women, aged 26 to 75, were evaluated before and after. Unsurprisingly, all women have gotten fitter, but we also learned that older women have changed as much as younger women. Older women increased strength by 20-30 percent, eventually becoming as strong as women 20 years younger when they started. Improvement and age were unrelated. So when someone says he is too old to do strength exercises, I know he is wrong.

We often think of aerobic training as a healthy workout for adults. Sure, walking, cycling, and swimming are great and you have to do it, but these activities don’t make you stronger. Strength training is different. A recent review of 663 strength training studies for seniors showed dramatic improvement in everything from arthritis to osteoporosis. Strength training works by improving body function, 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 training at home, but I think the easiest way to start strength training is to join the gym. Yes, you have to pay, but it’s worth it. Gyms can be quite sociable and it’s a good idea to bring a friend along. If you’ve never worked out in the gym before, the variety of equipment might be a little intimidating. You may need assistance at first, but you will soon learn to take care of yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Most gyms have a number of resistance machines designed to strengthen specific parts of the body. You do not plan to use all 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 a rest of about two minutes, then repeat. There is no magic number; everything works. Make sure you include at least one leg exercise. Once you’ve mastered the routine, you can do it in under 30 minutes. It works twice a week, but go there three times if you like.

Eventually you may want to expand your workout, try some free weights or bodyweight exercises. Plan on doing some standing exercises. Standing exercises are more functional as they replicate the normal stresses on the body. This workout improves balance and helps prevent falls. Sufficient muscle strength is a key to independence. It is never too late to start.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sports science after teaching at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis for 52 years. He comments on sports, exercise and sports medicine. He can be reached at [email protected]

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