Unlike pumping iron in your 20s and 30s, lifting weights after 50 isn’t so much about bragging rights—seeing how much you can bench or showing off your six-pack abs. It’s more about health, longevity and being able to energetically do the things you want to do in life without getting injured.
Lifting weights also helps maintain weight loss. Scott Schmaren, 56, of Chicago, uses weights to help him trim down from the 360 pounds he started at 10 years ago. “Weight lifting changed my life,” he says. “It helped me lose and keep off more than 180 pounds for many years. I am lean and strong and don’t look my age.”
Schmaren currently lifts three times a week at a local gym and runs through a 13-machine circuit of machines. “The circuits get my heart rate up,” Schmaren says. He continues with 30 minutes of cardio, treadmill or elliptical machine, and then finishes with planks and other core exercises. “I have clear pictures in my head of what I want to look like,” says the professional hypnotist. “Working out is part of who I am.”
Strength training can also help you live longer, according to researchers at Penn State College of Medicine (Preventive Medicine 2016). Older adults who trained twice weekly experienced increased strength and muscle mass, and were at less risk of conditions such as obesity, low back pain, osteoporosis and diabetes. Not surprisingly, increased strength linked to lower mortality.
A 2019 study in Frontiers in Physiology demonstrated the benefits of strength training just once a week for 65-year-olds. The weekly workouts enabled people to perform activities of daily living more easily; participants found tasks such as carrying shopping bags, using the bathroom, and walking up and down stairs easier.
If you want to begin a weight lifting program later in life, the key lies in getting started safely.
“Most people don’t want to hear this, but, see your doctor first,” says Mark Nutting, owner of Jiva Fitness in Easton, Pennsylvania. “Get a checkup and make sure you don’t have any underlying health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease. Report and get a diagnosis on any joint or muscle pains you might be having. You can then determine what activities can be safely done.”
Nutting also suggests letting go of your ego. “Your body doesn’t care that you were a high school athlete. Your focus should now be on creating a workout that you can build on and sustain for the rest of your life.” This means starting slowly, and progressing gradually and continually.
For older lifters, it’s important to focus less on getting buff and more on a fitness regimen that will facilitate easy movement.
Called “functional” exercises, these incorporate movement patterns that translate directly to real-life activities. “This includes multi-directional movements that use multiple joints and muscle groups,” says Nutting. Examples include squatting and pressing a weight overhead, which mimics movements you may need, for example, when loading a bag into an overhead compartment on an airplane.
“No time to work out” isn’t an excuse, either. “Your workouts don’t have to be a marathon,” says Nutting. “Shorter workouts can still offer big benefits. You can even break up your workouts into chunks that can be done throughout the day.”
Be sure to include balance exercises and to practice getting up and down off the floor. “When you stop doing this, you gradually lose the mobility, strength and balance that it takes. Before long you can’t get up off the floor,” Nutting notes.
Strength training is only part of a complete fitness plan, however. “A combination of resistance training, cardio fitness, balance and mobility exercise, and movement for fun is typically best to keep your body progressing and to avoid injury,” says Adam Rivadeneyra, MD, a sports medicine specialist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California.
When you’re over 50, certain health problems may be more relevant, Rivadeneyra adds. “Osteoporosis, arthritis, cardiac or respiratory issues can all be difficult to manage on your own. Exercise in the right quantity and intensity can be very helpful for even the most severe health conditions.” Rivadeneyra suggests talking to a sports medicine physician and/or sports-oriented physical therapist to help determine an exercise prescription.
“It’s also helpful to find a workout partner, set short- and long-term goals, schedule regular workouts, warm up, cool down—and have fun,” Rivadeneyra adds.