POWER! The missing link in the senior exercise program.

Traditionally when we think about power and exercise, we think of elite athletes, sprinters, football players, and weight lifters. But the ability to produce power is a key component of improving function and maintaining independence as we age. In this post I will be referring to power as is pertains to seniors and the aging population.

Aging and muscle loss

As we age we begin to lose muscle mass, this process called sarcopenia, can begin as early as in our 30’s, and if we are inactive we can lose 3% to 5% of our muscle mass each decade and that process speeds up as we approach our 70’s. Even active people have loss of muscle mass with aging. There are two types of muscle fibers, Type 1 (slow twitch) and Type 2 (fast twitch). As we age we lose more of the Type 2 muscle fibers, these are the muscle fibers that produce power.

What is power? Strength is the ability of a muscle to produce a force. This is important as we age to perform daily tasks like putting away dishes or carrying groceries. Power is the ability to produce force quickly. Power is important for tasks like going up stairs, getting out of a chair, and walking quickly to cross the street. A reduction in a persons ability to produce power correlates with decrease in function and increase in disability. Several studies have linked a loss of power to be a predictor of falls and decline in function over loss of strength.

Is power training appropriate for seniors?

This research study concluded “several carefully conducted randomized trials have demonstrated that high velocity resistance training is more effective for improving muscle power compared to traditional slow velocity training. In general, this type of power training is safe and well tolerated even in mobility-limited older adults and person aged > 80 years. However, the efficacy and feasibility of high velocity power training in older adults with chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis have yet to be fully determined. There is now clear evidence that short term interventions of high velocity resistance training and other more practical power training modalities using weighted vests can induce substantial improvements in physical functioning and restore mobility in frail older adults. Studies with larger sample sizes are needed to clearly establish whether high velocity power training is more effective for enhancing functional outcomes in older adults”

Personally I use power training for almost all my clients. Plyometrics, which are great for improving power are not appropriate for the clients I serve. So what do you do to improve power? Simple really, increase speed.

My favorite exercises to improve power in seniors

I have clients from 45 to 95, active to frail,  so not every exercise is appropriate for every client. But some of my favorites are:

Sit to Stand I love this exercise, it can be easy or it can be hard depending on seat height and is there anything more functional? Variations I use include: seat height ( I have a client struggling to get out of a low car but can stand easily from all the seats in her home so I have her practice sit to stand from a stool) resistance: with a band around the waist (be sure to hold onto the chair if the band is around the chair) I have clients perform 10 reps at regular speed, then 10 reps as fast as they can with a slow eccentric return to sit.

Step ups Again, function! I use the same step-up variations as I do with sit-to-stand, vary the step height, use resistance bands, vary the speed, and focus on slow eccentric contraction.

Resisted walking Its not just for sprinters. If your client is safe to do this activity (I don’t do this with everyone because it’s not appropriate for everyone) I use a band around the waist and have them walk quickly forward against the resistance of the band and then walk backward slowly. ( I also use this for sidestepping for a closed chain abductor workout. I love closed chain activity and it works the muscles differently than when your tie a band around their legs, but that’s a different post)

It is well known that a comprehensive exercise program for the aging population, whether they are active or frail should include: resistance training, endurance training, flexibility, and balance training. However, the ability to produce power as we age is essential to maintain independence and reduce disability. Improving power can be as simple as performing some of the exercises you are already doing at a faster speed, and adding in a few functional activities like resisted sit to stand. Addressing power in your senior client’s exercise program can make a world of difference in their ability to maintain long-term independence. How are you working on your senior client’s power?

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Contact Katrina for more information on a personalized exercise program.

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