Many people, myself included, have not been in a studio, gym or recreational facility for over 13 months. What will be the posture, balance, strength and mood consequences of over a year of reduced activity due to pandemic lockdowns? I fear that when it’s all over there may be another epidemic: of out-of-condition kids, adults, and seniors.
Perhaps you’re someone who has become creative with props, stairs, and home weights to keep muscles strong and spirits up. Fortunately, many people during these times have had access to online fitness classes. My 94-year-old father learned to Zoom into my chair class. When residents in his Calgary retirement home were confided to their units, the fitness instructor was creative in carrying on with fitness classes, not in the shuttered gym, but in the extra long hallways, using chairs placed ten feet apart so that seniors who wanted to could get out of their rooms for exercise six days a week. This innovation was a godsend for people’s moods as well as for maintaining strength.
Strength Training for Spirit and Function
Do you remember lifting grandchildren, climbing stairs and hillsides, and keeping up on walks? In future we can do all these activities again, if we continue our strength training. Let’s all get out our weights and resistance bands, and use them often. Both can be easily ordered online and delivered to your door, if you don’t yet have them. Strength training is about more than seeing our muscles develop. Lifting increases serotonin levels and boosts energy and endurance. It is an excellent stress buster, needed now more than ever.
Light Versus Heavy Weights
A few years ago, when I began to focus on Pilates for older adults, I introduced heavier weights into my classes. Both light and heavy approaches make sense for this age group, as do resistance bands. These bands share a close association with Pilates exercises because the resistance of the band simulates the spring tension of Pilates equipment. Joseph Pilates used various springs and pulleys to add light to moderate resistance to his work. His goal was not to isolate and overload a muscle into exhaustion but to build long and lean muscles and to train the body functionally.
We use two or three pounders, one weight in either hand, to warm up, and for the Pilates-based exercises. Low levels of resistance keep the muscles in balance, minimize strain on joints and soft tissues, and are better for people returning to exercise or recovering from injuries. With lighter resistance you have the freedom to work in the full range of motion—to rotate the arms inward or outward, to work faster or slower, to make circles or diagonals, and to otherwise work the body as a unit.
For all the advantages of light weights, heavier weights should also be used if possible. Start with a pair of five or six pounders and build up. Lifting heavier weights improves the performance of muscles, such as the ability of a given muscle to contract. The heavier the weights, the greater number of fast-twitch fibers will be used (for more on slow- and fast-twitch fibers, see my March 31st blog). Heavier weights can prevent or reverse the effects of osteoporosis. Inactivity weakens bone, whereas lifting weights builds bones back up. In addition to building bone, heavier weights build muscle; and the stronger the muscle, the more pull it exerts on the bones. Muscles pulling on the bones promote osteoblast (bone-building) activity. I’ll include more about osteoporosis and bone health in next week’s blog.
These exercise bands are about six inches wide and should be at least six feet long. They are very effective for upper-and-lower body work, but it is important to understand how the elastic material functions and how to set the body up best to benefit from the unique properties of this elasticity. Try and maintain the full width of the band whenever possible. Always keep a good grip on the band so it can’t snap back in your face. At the same time, be aware that bands can cause tension in the fingers, and hands can tire quickly. A couple more things: inspect your band frequently and replace it if you notice any nicks. Keep bands out of direct sunlight and dry between use; dust them with talc powder if necessary.
Let’s Get Started
Before lifting light or heavy weights, check out any undiagnosed shoulder issues with a physio. Then consult them and your doctor as to whether these exercises are appropriate for you. Some people may find it safer to work in sturdy supportive sneakers than bare feet.
Once you have the go-ahead to lift weights, start slow and build. When using heavier weights, extreme care must be taken with alignment and technique, and to give yourself time to adapt to increased loads. There should be no uncomfortable sensations within the muscles such as cramping or pain. Make sure you are able to complete your reps in good alignment and with a smooth not a jerky movement. Vary the reps and do only as many as you can while keeping good form. If you can do more than eight while maintaining form, go for it.
Soreness can develop after a strenuous weight-lifting session. Sometimes this comes in the form of a delayed muscle tenderness that develops 12-24 hours after the workout. To prevent soreness, progress gradually, making sure you warm up adequately and stretch gently after lifting. Give yourself adequate rest periods after using heavier weights. Make the day after lifting a day of rest, as it’s during this recovery period that energy is replenished and lactic acid is removed from the muscles. But moderate exercises such as walking, stretching and Pilates core work on your day of rest are more beneficial than total inactivity.
Until the pandemic is over, we will have no idea as to its full consequences for our health and lifestyles. Let’s focus on what we have control over: our own strength and resilience. Happy lifting!