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Never too late to lift

Pumping iron can help older people avoid muscle deterioration and remain active, gerontologists say.

March 01, 2004|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Like most older people, LaDonna Peterson hasn't heard of sarcopenia, an unhealthy loss of muscle mass that often develops with age. But by lifting weights a couple of days a week, the 70-year-old retired finance officer has managed to prevent it.

While many of her contemporaries have trouble simply getting out of a chair because of muscle deterioration, Peterson enjoys doing tasks on her own -- from carrying her groceries to storing her baggage in the overhead compartment on an airplane.

"I often see younger women struggling with their luggage," said the Mount Washington resident, who took up a strength and cardiovascular conditioning program five years ago after being diagnosed with a heart condition. "I usually end up helping them."

Older people and weightlifting are not two things normally linked, but it's time they should be, gerontologists say. Loss of muscle mass, especially in those 65 and older, can rob people of their mobility, their balance and ultimately their independence. Experts estimate that more than 17% of people will suffer from the condition by age 75.

"The twin disasters of old age are dementia and frailty," said Dr. Robert N. Butler, a geriatrics professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "The key thing with muscle loss is you can do something about it -- almost immediately."

Most people begin gradually losing muscle mass in their late 20s and early 30s. The loss usually doesn't become a health risk, however, until about age 60, when it can prevent a person from doing even the simplest of daily tasks. If ignored, sarcopenia can lead to a broken hip or an early trip to a nursing home.

Although years of research have shown the importance of maintaining muscles in old age, the word is still not getting out to the senior and medical community.

"We've done a terrible job in promoting it," said Michael Hewitt, research director for exercise science at Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tucson. "Everyone has heard of osteoporosis, but few have heard of sarcopenia."

Osteoporosis, a gradual loss of bone density that greatly increases the risk of fractured and broken bones, has received vast media attention over the last decade. Although the condition can't be reversed (unlike sarcopenia), weightlifting can help prevent its onset and preserve the bone that remains.

But even if older people were alerted to the value of strength conditioning, their weightlifting opportunities are limited. Many health clubs are geared for a younger demographic -- with loud music and incremental increases on weightlifting machines that are too large for most older people, especially those starting out.

"Health clubs can be very intimidating to an older person," said Dr. Diane Edwards, physical fitness director at Leisure World in south Orange County. "It can be overwhelming for many."

Not only is there an immediate need to get today's seniors into the weight room, but tomorrow's older population may need it even more. People in their 40s and 50s suffer from higher rates of obesity than their elders, making exercising even more difficult but no less urgent.

"One hope is that this next generation will find it easier to get into the health clubs since they grew up during the fitness revolution of the '70s," said Butler, who is also president of the New York-based International Longevity Center-USA, a nonprofit center for research, policy and education on population aging. "So they might not be as reluctant as today's older group [in lifting weights]."

Some health clubs are more accommodating of older clients. At the South Pasadena-San Marino YMCA, where Peterson began her workouts, she consulted with a personal trainer to get started on her program.

"We're just beginning to see seniors get on the weights," said Mike Maguinez, the facility's wellness director. "We take them at whatever level they are at and work from there."

A strength-conditioning program should take only 10 to 15 minutes at least twice a week to help older people ward off sarcopenia, remain independent and enjoy a better quality of life, gerontologists say. The most important muscles to work are the leg muscles -- quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal.

"These muscles enable a person to get out of a chair or a bathtub or off the toilet -- and just being able to do that without injury is compelling reason enough to do strength training," Hewitt said.

Leg weight machines are useful for building strength. Older people should consult their doctors before beginning a program, but general guidelines suggest beginning with a weight that can be lifted eight to 12 times for two sets. When a lifter can do more than 12 to 15 repetitions without tiring, it's time to bump up the weight.

The program also should work the chest, shoulders and back. Weight machines are ideal for exercising these muscle groups. (Edwards recommends against older people using hand or free weights. "A lot of them have arthritic hands and can't hold them, and if they drop them, it can mean a broken toe.")

For her part, Peterson performs a dozen different weightlifting exercises on machines at the YMCA. The routine, which takes about half an hour, has improved her muscles and her outlook.

"I'm very strong for my age," she said. "And when you're older it's nice when you notice anything is getting better."

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