When you hear people talk about starting a new exercise routine, it often revolves around cardio. And that makes sense, since we all know about the health benefits of regular cardiovascular exercise. But, if your current workout routine doesn't involve strength training, you're missing out. Read on to learn why adults of all ages (and especially older adults) should prioritize strength training and balance as they age.
Why Is Strength Training Important?
Muscle strength is required for all sorts of daily activities, from doing yard work or lifting a small child to something as seemingly simple as getting out of a chair. But we start to lose muscle mass in our 30s — and when the muscles in your core, glutes, legs and feet weaken, your balance can suffer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), falls are the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for those ages 65 and older, which is why working on your coordination is so crucial.
Luckily, you can fend off many of the problems caused by decreased muscle mass with a regular strength training routine. While you can't prevent all forms of age-related decline, you can absolutely counteract the impact on your strength and balance through simple, targeted strength training exercises. Whether you're looking to prevent muscle loss or are trying to increase balance and mobility later in life, it's never too late to start working on your coordination. After all, it's not just about how long you live — it’s about your quality of life during those later years.
Can Coordination Tests Predict Mortality?
Over the years, physicians have developed a number of tests in order to quickly assess balance and muscle strength in older adults. In fact, there are even studies that purport to predict mortality based on these results. These studies tend to resurface online every few years, so you may have heard of some of them before, such as the 30-second chair stand test or the 10-second one-legged stance test. While there are certainly limitations to what these tests can accurately predict, they can still be a valuable resource in assessing your current mobility.
The Sitting-Rising Test: How Do You Score?
Recently, the "sitting-rising test" has gained renewed popularity online. This test was designed by a team of Brazilian researchers, led by Claudio Gil Araújo, and published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention in 2012. In the study, 2,002 adults (ages 51 to 80) were asked to sit down on the floor and get back up without the use of their hands or knees. This test was designed specifically to provide a look into an older person's ability to remain independently mobile, however, it can also be revealing for those in their 30s and 40s as well.
To take the sitting-rising test, start from a standing position and — without using your hands or knees to help you — lower yourself to the floor and rise back up again (if you're struggling, try crossing your legs and loosely holding your arms to your sides). You can give yourself five points for sitting down and another five for standing back up, subtracting one point for any time you used your hands or knees to steady yourself. If you need help, you can click here to watch a video of the original test. And, if you just tried the test yourself, you probably realized it's harder than it looks!
So what does this test tell us? According to the study, participants who scored less than eight were twice as likely to die within the next six years (the length of the study) and those who scored less than three were more than five times more likely to die. But before you panic about not getting a perfect score, remember that no single test can predict all of the many factors that affect our health as we age. Plus, there are other conditions — such as cataracts — that can impact your balance without being directly related to muscle strength.
Try These Balance-Enhancing Exercises
The sitting-rising test certainly isn't the end-all-be-all when it comes to assessing the outlook of your long-term health. Still, this is an easy way to test one facet of your mobility. And luckily, if you aren't happy with your current score, this is something you can improve with practice! While we always recommend talking with your doctor before beginning a new workout routine, here are some simple strength training exercises to consider when working on improving your balance:
- Push-ups. Push-ups not only work the muscles in your chest and triceps, but also help strengthen your core. Increased core strength can greatly improve your overall balance as you age, so this is a good, simple exercise to include in your routine. If traditional push-ups are too difficult, you can start with an elevated push-up (placing your hands on a step, counter, or wall) without losing the benefit of the exercise.
- Squats. Squats are a great way to practice your transition from sitting to standing and vice versa. Simply stand with your feet hip-width apart while keeping your arms in front of you for balance, then push your hips backward as if you're going to sit in a chair, rise and repeat. For a modified squat, start from a seated position, begin to stand up (just a few inches) until you feel muscle strain, then sit back down.
- Reverse lunges. Lunges target a few different muscle groups, including your quads, glutes and hamstrings. Similar to the classic lunge, the reverse lunge can help build strength and improve balance — and is a bit easier than the traditional exercise. To start, stand with your feet about hip-width apart and your hands out in front of you (or holding onto a chair for support). Step one leg backward, while bending that knee toward the ground. Rise back to standing position and repeat, making sure to work both legs.
- Standing leg lifts. Leg lifts are an exercise that you can do from practically anywhere and are also a great way to strengthen your glutes and hip abductors. First, stand behind a chair and hold onto it with both hands. Next, slowly lift one leg to the side while keeping your body as still as possible. Alternate legs as you repeat the exercise. You can play with the intensity by adjusting how long you hold your leg in the air.
While the sitting-rising test may not be the perfect predictor of your lifespan, it is true that working on your balance and flexibility as you age will help keep you healthier. Whether you're simply trying to maintain your flexibility or you’re ready to improve your coordination while you still can, you won't regret the time you spend on maintaining your health. Not only will strength training exercises help you live longer, but they’ll also improve your quality of life!
This article first appeared in the October 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.