I recently received a notification that a reader was unsubscribing from my newsletter, and the reason given was he felt he was “too old” for exercise. This was deeply upsetting, because the consequences of not exercising only get worse with age and I know what kind of difference proper exercise can make in the lives of older people. I am writing this in hopes of dispelling some fears, giving some basic guidelines for getting started, and motivating people to exercise properly, regardless of age. If you think you’re too old for exercise, please take a few minutes to read the rest of this article and the letters from readers that follow. If you know someone who thinks they’re too old for exercise, please share this link with them and offer to help them to start on an exercise program.
You are never too old for exercise. If you are capable of voluntarily contracting your skeletal muscles you are capable of exercising safely and productively, regardless of your age or physical condition. By “exercise” I specifically mean strength training using very slow movement or no movement at all (isometrics) performed in accordance with muscle and joint function, addressing all the major muscle groups. Moving slowly or performing isometric contractions (working one muscle group against an immobile object or another muscle group without movement) makes it possible for you to safely train with a high enough intensity of effort to effectively stimulate improvements in muscular strength and size.
The older you are the more important exercise becomes because many of the problems associated with aging are caused by or related to sarcopenia, the loss of muscle we experience as we age if we do not exercise properly to combat it. Losing muscle mass reduces your strength and endurance, your metabolism, your insulin sensitivity, your body’s ability to regulate its temperature, and is associated with loss of bone mass, just for starters. If you let yourself go too far, eventually weakness, sickness, and frailty will rob you of your functional ability and independence. It is never too late to turn things around, but the earlier you start the easier it will be, and the sooner you will experience all the benefits of proper exercise.
The same general principles that apply to younger people apply to seniors, the only difference is that although everybody should always train as safely as possible seniors need to be especially cautious about which exercises they perform and how they perform them. The following are a few general guidelines:
- Start out with just a few basic, multi-joint exercises working the major muscle groups. Perform only one work set of each exercise per workout. Some find their joints tolerate certain exercises better after a light warm up set, although for most this is unnecessary if proper form is used.
- Perform the exercises with only a light weight at first and focus on learning to move and reverse direction smoothly and breathe continuously.
- Be very conservative with repetition speed; take at least four seconds to lift and four seconds to lower the weight, reversing direction as smoothly as possible without bouncing, yanking, or jerking the weight. Pause for a second or two in the fully-contracted position on compound pulling exercises and simple exercises. If you’re moving slowly enough six to ten repetitions should take you around sixty to ninety seconds to complete. If you have any joint problems or are concerned about the risk of injury you can move even more slowly, taking ten seconds to lift and ten seconds to lower the weight (SuperSlow), for a range of three to five repetitions.
- When you are able to perform ten or more repetitions of an exercise in good form at a moderate speed, or five or more SuperSlow repetitions, the next time you perform the exercise add five pounds or five percent more weight, whichever is less. It is common to recommend higher repetition ranges for seniors both because of the perceived increase in safety and because of the conversion of type II to type I muscle fibers with age, however performing fewer repetitions is safe and effective when they are performed at a slow speed.
- As the exercises become more challenging you’ll start to experience elevated heart rate and breathing. At first, allow a minute or two between exercises for heart rate and breathing to return to normal before performing the next exercise. Over time as your conditioning improves gradually reduce the rest between exercises to improve the cardiovascular and metabolic effect.
- Train no more than three times a week the first few weeks while learning the exercises then cut back to training only twice a week. If your progress slows down reduce your frequency to once weekly. Some people may require even more recovery time/less frequent training than this. The amount of recovery time required between workouts increases with age and can vary considerably between individuals.
- It is normal for your muscles to burn, and for your breathing and heart rate to increase but if something hurts or if you begin to feel dizzy, nauseous, or faint or think you maybe starting to get a headache stop the exercise immediately and carefully exit the machine or set down the weight.
For more detailed guidelines and workouts read High Intensity Workouts.
If you aren’t able to go to a commercial gym or high intensity personal training studio, and if you don’t have any exercise equipment at home it is still possible to exercise safely and effectively using only your body weight for resistance or performing isometrics by working muscle groups against each other or against an immobile object. For more detailed guidelines on bodyweight exercises and workouts read Project Kratos.
Over the years I have trained a lot of older people, including a few in their mid to late eighties, and could share a lot of stories of lives transformed by proper exercise. One of them stands out in my memory more than any other, though, because he was in such incredibly bad condition when he started, yet through perseverance and hard work was able to get much stronger over the course of only a few months.
In the early fall of 1995 I started training a man in his late sixties who had recently been released from the hospital after months of being confined to a bed due to complications arising from surgery to remove his left lung and one of the lobes of his right lung. He was extremely atrophied and weak, had a lot of difficulty breathing and required an oxygen tank, and needed a walker to move.
At first he struggled with even very low resistance and had to frequently stop during an exercise due to having difficulty breathing rather than muscular fatigue. It often took several minutes before he felt he could breathe well enough to move on to the next machine, and when he did it often took a few more minutes, due both to his lack of strength and having to avoid entangling his oxygen tank tubes in the equipment.
He worked hard, though, and week after week he got stronger and his breathing improved and he was able to lift more weight for a longer time and move more quickly between exercises. By December he had ditched the walker and was even able to shovel the snow off of his driveway and carry an artificial Christmas tree upstairs from the basement unassisted. If you’ve ever shoveled snow off of a driveway in Wisconsin you can appreciate what it means to be able to do that after previously depending on a walker.
While this kind of transformation may seem amazing, it is actually what people should expect from proper exercise, and there are a lot of older people using high intensity training to achieve similar improvements in strength, mobility, and quality of life. In a recent newsletter I asked readers to share their stories and the stories of the people they have trained, and I hope you find them as motivating as I have.
I have worked in the senior and rehab markets for 33 years- and we have installed Nautilus equipment in over 1000 senior living facilities and LTC providers- we have well over 2,000,000 patient/resident exercise sessions- with zero reported injuries and proven cost of care and FIM score improvements as a function. I think the average age of our participants is over 80…
Proper strength training will hypertrophy muscle- whether you are 25 or 85.
We have developed non pharmaceutical solutions programs for many of the maladies of aging- including sarcopenia, osteoporosis, proprioceptive and vestibular decline, circulation and hormonal decline, and cognition challenges.
– Dean Sbragia, Medical Fitness Solutions
I’m 60, not THAT old. I started out in fairly good shape a year and a half ago; I had ridden over 2 1/2 mountain passes in Colorado in one day (there is a crazy 120 mile ride called the Triple Bypass; a lightning storm stopped me just short of the top of Vail Pass.). My wife felt like she was becoming a bicycle widow; training rides were even longer than 18 holes of golf!
Since then have been doing the Body By Science/Superslow thing. I’m sort of a gadget junkie and started measuring Heart Rate Variability in the morning and notice that my resting heart rate in the morning is usually between 59 and 63. That’s with NO “cardio” at all, just one really intense half hour, once every week to two weeks. This Global Metabolic Conditioning that Doug McGuff talks about seems to be real.
My leg press (in Nautilus pounds, whatever that means) has gone from 3 minutes at 150 lbs to 2 minutes or so at 330 lbs. More than doubled my weights in 18 months; I’ll take it. The gym just got a couple of ARX machines which I have mixed feelings about but it certainly works me hard.
I was able to hike up and down some nasty hills this year on the annual testosterone-laden elk hunting trip with my 33 year old former Army Ranger son-in-law. Guess I’m not quite ready for the “Home.”
My 32 year old daughter has started and I can already see a difference in her posture, shoulders.
My 81 year old mother started a few months ago. Last month my father fainted in a very awkward place in their house, and she was able to help pull him out and call 911. Probably saved his life. Before starting SuperSlow she said she had a bit of trouble getting up from the floor and she feels a lot stronger.
Most important of all, my wife told me this morning that “she likes my butt!” You young guys take note.
My final challenge is my brother, who has a bum knee with arthritis, and my father. Dad has some heart issues and I’m sure the rehab folks and cardiologists would be scared to death to have him do HIT even though I suspect it might be the best thing for him. If they cleared him he’d be game; he describes himself as “a tough old bird.” Up until recently he has done fairly light circuits at a local gym on weight machines.
Drew, might not be a bad idea to anonymize me since I mention other people…
I enjoy your site, like the book, and appreciate what you do.
– Jim (last name withheld for anonymity) MD, PhD
I am a Cenegenics Age Management physician. I have a full line of completely refurbished late 70’s & early to mid 80’s Nautilus exercise machines in my office. A little over a year ago, I started my 73 year old mother and 72 year old step-father on HIT twice a week. They have made excellent progress in body composition, strength, balance and all around improved functionality. They had never weight trained before and have had zero injuries. My step-father told my mom I am “saving their lives”.
Sarcopenia is the number one cause of nursing home admissions. Older people get weak and have decreased mobility. They have trouble getting to the restroom in time and wind up with a catheter and needing nursing home care. Our “poster child”, Dr. Jeff Life, is 74 and looks fantastic. He says everything he does is focused on maintaining and even increasing his lean body mass. Lean body mass has been shown to correlate positively with health outcomes, including cancer survival. I share your passion on this topic.
– Patrick Sharp, D.O. The Sharp Clinic
Drew, I train 102 different clients/week. Only thirteen of those clients are younger than me and I’m age 55.
– Doug Holland, Intelligent Exercise
Hi Drew. Just read your e-mail on training seniors. Great article. I am 54 and I am in better shape then when I was in my 30’s. My mother trains at my gym. She is 75 and had osteoporosis. After 6 months of training with my wife and I she has been down graded to osteopenia. She trains twice a week on our Nautilus equipment and does no more than 5 exercises per workout. I would like to think the exercise had everything to do with her improved condition, but I know her medicine had a part as well. That being said, I’m sure the two combined together improved her condition. I enjoy your articles Drew and find them very informative and helpful. I should add she can open water bottles and jar lids now. Before strength training she could not.
– Chris Sanford
I met a senior lady 2 yrs ago. while working at the local Y. She was a member as I was. After a few days of getting to know each other she had said she had a stroke 2 yrs pror. Completely paralyzed on the right side. Moving ahead to where she met me, she was walking and had some ROM in the right arm I started researching this and started using some rotator exercises with arm weight only( just tom improve the rom). As time went by I started using 2 lb dumbbells as rom got better. She progressed to the Precor rear delt/pec fly machine. I set the right side handle to the number 2 setting to start. As time went by she was going farther back but was twisting. I set the left side handle to the 2 setting also. this way it stabilized the left side and kept her upper body stabilized. Now she has full ROM and went to 20 lbs. I only go back to the 3 setting with the weight at 20 lbs. This is where she wants to stay as far as rom at this weight. She doesn’t want to push it and is satisfied even though she can go back to the 5 setting. She said now she can get a pot from the oven for the first time.
This is her complete workout (All Nautilus Nitro and Precor):
- Leg press
- compound row
- lat pull down
- chest press
- lat raise
- lower back
She is very satisfied and works out three days week some weeks and less as she is very busy and a prominent lady in our county.
Drew all this was done with your help from your articles and website. I personally can’t say how much I appreciate your knowledge and article’s to pass on to people.
As I told you before I have had leukemia twice and prostrate cancer. I know how important health is and this is the reason I do what I do. I hope this story will be used as a testimonial for you. You are truly a blessing to many people.
– Scott Weathersby
I was so pleased to see this. I shall be eighty next year and have not stopped training since my youth.I am one of three of us the same age still benching squatting and the rest of it. Richard Winett is a good role model, too. The population is ageing and exercise should be important but there is a shortage of specific information out there which, I am happy to realize, you are going to put right.
– Leo T.
I met you many years ago when Madeline took over Ken. I actually was hired for the position of National Marketing Director for SSZ. You were just getting started with the transition in franchising. We met briefly. We might have crossed paths also when I got certified with Ken in May 2002.
I’ve been training clients in the Northern suburbs since. In fact, I helped jump start a client a few years back who went nuts over the protocol and ended up traveling around the country meeting and picking the brains of the “pros” and you were on his list. Remember Jim Keen?
Anyway, I’m going to be 66 years young next month. I have over 50 active clients, many which are of senior age. I’ve experienced the good feeling in helping my older clients live stronger and longer. They have less aches and pains, and take little or no medications.
– Marshall Okun
I’ll be 70-years-old this month (December 2014). Attached is a picture of me that my wife took when I was preparing to hit my speed bag. The picture was taken about 14-months ago (about two months before my 69th birthday).
Due to a chronic (seven-month+) sinus infection (which literally just about killed me), I’ve lost a lot of the muscle mass that you see in the picture. But it will not take me long to recover the mass.
I do all “bodyweight” exercises, except for once a week…I do an Olympic “dead-lift” for one set of three reps. I do this to simply lift something “heavy” once a week. It doesn’t contribute to my physique at all.
I agree. You are NEVER too old to train. And at my advanced age, I train hard…but smart.
– Mike Joplin
P.S. Also attached are two photos of me that were taken 50-years ago when I was a Corpsman (Medic) in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Puerto Rico. I joined the navy at 6′-1″ and I weighed about 145 pounds. I gained about 10-pounds in boot-camp, and then another 45 pounds in about 12 months. I built my physique with bodyweight exercises only (overhand, wide-grip, pull-ups, push-ups, inverted rows, hanging leg lifts, hill sprints, etc…). In one picture, I weigh 185 pounds, and in the other I weigh 200 pounds. I eventually got up to 222 pounds, but I felt and looked best at 185.
P.P.S. I purchased your “Project: Kratos Program Handbook” a few months ago. I love it! Your program is very similar to what I did to build my physique back in the 1960’s. I did a LOT of static holds, full rom’s and partials, 1-1/2’s, unilateral exercises (mostly eccentric), etc… Although I usually do quite a few push-ups, I hardly ever do more than 6 – 8 pull-ups per set.
You hardly need to tell me about the importance of exercise for people my age (71). I am what I refer to as an “ONG” (Original Nautilus Guy), having started HIT in the seventies. I have kept up with your (and others’) writings over the years and still love working out with a high level of intensity. As I’ve gotten older I find I need more variety in my training and enjoy experimenting with various rep speeds, etc.. Certain age related conditions have forced me to make adjustments to my workouts, but I find doing so a challenge. So far I have avoided any joint replacement surgery (although my wife wants me to look into a brain transplant). Currently, my goal is to qualify for the next Mr. Olympia contest.
Thank you for continuing to share your expertise. Looking forward to your next article.
I LOVE this email you wrote!!
I don’t have a mind-blowing weakling-to-superhero story to tell you. But I am living proof that everything you say is the absolute truth.
I am 54 and still playing all the sports I did in my twenties — tennis, full-court basketball, surfing, yoga, among others. Most people I know my age are starting to complain of aches and pains or simply have given up on enjoying the physical things they used to do.
They don’t have to if they follow the principles you teach! There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be doing all these things if I hadn’t been incorporating what you teach for many years.
Your books are fantastic and, no, I don’t have an amazing story to tell you, sorry. Truth be told, I’ve never NOT worked out and remained active, but I also know for a fact that the body reacts QUICKLY to the proper stimulus.
Anyway, I just had to tell you this because I discovered your material at a good time. Bodyweight exercises are workouts you can do for LIFE. I’ve slowly gotten away from barbells and weights and have been thrilled to find out just what is possible with your own body weight. It feels so much safer than throwing all that iron around and I feel fantastic. I’m stronger, remain flat-bellied and I don’t groan getting out of a chair.
I honestly don’t feel much different physically from how I felt thirty years ago. Sure, there are accommodations everyone has to make as they get older and certainly nagging little injuries take longer to heal, but there is no reason to sit on the sideline, no matter what your age.
Keep bringin’ it!
– Billy Mueller
Just turned 67 when pic was taken. About a month before I had done 2 strict reps with 160 in the curl. Minus the mustache now and minus 5 lbs off the gut. 5’9″ 213 lbs. When I was younger nobody had a stronger lower back. Three easy sets of 10 in the stiff-legged deadlift with 405. While still a teenager I was the first person in Michigan outside the heavyweight class to officially deadlift 600 lbs (at 192 lbs bodyweight.) Only do super-slow, relatively light DLs now, for safety, but in strict rows, pulls, etc. I’m stronger than when in my 20s and 30s. Not true for pressing movements — unless for high reps. I’m just not that excited about presses of any kind anymore, although I still do them. My boys were awesome high school wrestlers back in the day and it made me realize pulling-in strength was where it was really at. That and rotational strength . . .
Only thing I had going for me from a genetic standpoint, I believe, was perhaps a slightly diminished expression of the myostatin gene. This after having trained thousands of people throughout my lifetime and witnessing the diverse responses. Truly honest self-assessment and critical, scientific thinking were my only “drug.” Never took steroids. Too prideful to chance anything else being given the credit (lol). It will be interesting to see how curmudgeonly I get in the next 67 years!
– John Stchur
Thanks I needed this info. I’m 59 and I am stronger than at any time my life. I lift one day per week for about 20 minutes. What you say works. Thanks.
– Chip Westfall
Hope all is well with you. Regarding your email regarding seniors:
My father has been a client of mine for approximately 3 years, now. He started at 79 years of age. He trains once every 7-14 days, performing 5-7 exercises on an A/B split routine. The reason for his interest in hit style lifting is so that he can keep playing hockey, which he continues to do 2x weekly plus tournaments in an old timers league here in Montreal.
His training has helped alleviate low back pain, as well as knee pain that has bothered him since his mid 60’s. I’ve been given the age excuse by potential clients in the past, and always tell them that resistance training becomes the most important thing they can do for themselves once they’ve entered their twilight years.
– Craig Hubert
I started working out in 1948 when John Grimek won in London and started us training with weights in Belfast N.I.I trained in Buster McShanes gym(world record bench 500 @ 150)Presently I work with the weights 3xweekly,cardio 2xweekly hit 150 golf balls 2xweekly .I work 40 hrs per week,drive 65 mile one way to work (4 days) I was 83 last June and I take no medication. The weights have sustained me for these 66 years I am absolutely addicted.
– Desmond Atkinson
5 years ago, when I was nearly 60 I herniated my L1 and L2. I’ve been active my entire life. Between sports, the gym, took up playing squash at 30, I’ve never been sidelined, until then. Of course it was the MRI, the chiropractor, shots, and the physical therapist. After the 4 week recovery I felt pretty good and had a heart to heart with my doctor. I had felt, the life I had known prior, was gone. I’d be a frumpy old man. He looked at me and wrote a prescription. It wasn’t for meds. He told me to find a physical therapist/trainer who would strengthen my core. He also told me if I was going to err, err on the side of doing too much. He said the risk was not doing enough and it would only get worse. I was fortunate and found a trainer, close to my age no less, who taught me all about body mechanics. It was for me, a transformation. Here I was, closing in on 60, thinking I’m done only to find out I was totally wrong. Brother Muhammed changed my thinking on just about everything. I did discover one very important fact, the value of a qualified trainer who believes in you as a client. I’m going to be 66, still in the gym, and still loving my life.
Thanks for allowing me to share this story and thanks for the great emails on being in the gym and aging.
– Kerry Andrews
I am 57 with various orthopedic ailments accumulated over 40 + years of playing sports and exercising.I chose Drew as a trainer for his scientific, meticulous approach to training coupled with his years of expertise as both a coach and competitive bodybuilder.
I performed a twice weekly bodyweight only routine for 12 weeks based upon the HIT principles that Drew outlined. No extra “cardio” or weights were included. The only other form of exercise were long walks.
At the conclusion of this program I decided to test myself with a few challenges. I was able to achieve the following despite not having practiced any of these in several months; some such as the one armed pull-ups not in a few years:
a) one armed pushups with good,slow form
b) clutch flags on pole
c) 88# kettlebell-100 swings in under 5 minutes
d) sand bag (80% of bodyweight) carry x 50 yards alternated w/ heavy sledgehammer swings(20)–5 rounds in 10 minutes
e) 150* “iron cross” hold between cars
f) elbow levers on ground
g) rope climbing and playground pole climbing-hands only
I wont win any Olympic medals or may not impress others,but who cares.These are activities are enjoy. The carryover from HIT to these seemingly unrelated movements shows the profound strength and conditioning effect this program produces.
The most important part of it all was I was not injured.I cant say that from the many other routines I have tried HIT works big time –and in less time than you would believe.Drew is a true fitness maven with a great foundation of knowledge who knows how to apply his talents to make you the best you can be. Don’t hesitate to work with him if you can–it will be money well spent.”
– Steve Fink, MD
If you are an older trainee or work with older trainees please share your stories below, and share this with anyone who tells you they are “too old” for exercise.
Other articles by Drew Baye on high intensity training for seniors: