sealPurdue News

February 2001

Seniors can reap weighty gains from strength training

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Weights clank, treadmills hum and people sweat, but there is no music blasting, the televisions are tuned to CNN or the Arts and Entertainment Network, and many of the exercisers are senior citizens. Sound like your local gym?

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Probably not. But it's a common scenario at Purdue University's A.H. Ismail Fitness and Nutrition Research and Education Center, and one that Michael Flynn would like to see duplicated in exercise facilities around the country.

"Our research, and that of others, has shown that strength training can have a remarkable impact on the lives of seniors," says Flynn, a professor in the department of Health, Kinesiology and Leisure Studies and director of the Max E. Wastl Human Performance Laboratory at Purdue. "There are documented cases of individuals who required a cane or a walker to get around, but after strength training they no longer needed those items for mobility."

Flynn began putting senior women in the weight room at the University of Toledo while researching the impact of exercise on the immune system of endurance athletes.

"It's been reported that excessive training or over-training can suppress post-exercise immune responses, and it occurred to us that weight training – which we thought would be a fairly strenuous and novel activity for senior women – might elicit some of the same changes we had observed in endurance athletes," Flynn explains.

The study, which was funded by the American Association of Retired Persons and published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, monitored 29 women aged 69 to 84. Half of them were put on a weekly strength training program while the 14-member control group did not change their activity levels. After 10 weeks, Flynn found no detectable change in selected indexes of immune system function for any of the strength trainers.

What was more surprising was the amount of strength gained and the impact it had on mobility.

"The subjective reports from the participants were quite remarkable," Flynn says. "They reported being able to do things that they couldn't do before, and objectively their increases in strength ranged from 50 percent to more than 600 percent in one of our subjects. The average increase was about 150 percent, which means these women were tripling the amount of weight they were able to lift in the course of 10 weeks."

Flynn and doctoral student Melody Phillips of Fort Worth, Texas, are currently testing senior women for a follow-up study at Purdue which will look specifically at the impact of resistance training on a blood chemical that is known to influence bone cell function. But in the future, Flynn hopes it won't take a research study to get seniors of both sexes into the weight room.

"Strength training as an exercise activity declines steadily through adulthood, and the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta show that by the age of 75 few people are involved in resistance training," Flynn says. "This is despite a growing body of evidence that strength training can significantly improve the quality of seniors' lives, as well as lengthen the amount of time a person can function independently and perform all the tasks we tend to take for granted."

So what will it take to get seniors into the weight room? Flynn says education and accessibility are good places to start.

"Seniors need to know about the benefits of strength training and that it doesn't take a lot of weight to get started," Flynn says. "The important thing is to increase the amount lifted over time. Our research subjects usually began the program with very light weights, but their progression to heavier weights was quite dramatic."

Making weight rooms more "senior friendly" is the other half of the equation.

"The atmosphere in many exercise facilities tends to be youthful and, in some cases, testosterone driven," Flynn admits. "Family-oriented recreation centers like the YMCA and YWCA tend to have more programs for people of all ages, but the weight room is not nearly as likely to be used by seniors as a stretch class or the swimming pool."

Flynn adds that in one respect, seniors are just like everyone else when it comes to exercise.

"We all need to be motivated to do it, and it helps to have an exercise buddy – someone to talk with between sets," Flynn explains. "It's easier to get to the gym when you know someone is expecting to meet you there."

Source: Michael Flynn, (765) 496-3329,

Writer: Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Purdue doctoral student Melody Phillips assesses West Lafayette resident Judy Schreiner as a potential candidate for a new research study on strength training for senior women. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at the News Service Web site and at the ftp site. Photo ID: Flynn.seniors

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