Senior Strength Training: How Hard Should I Exercise?

You’ve chosen to take the plunge and start an exercise program. Congratulations on a sound decision! As a senior, you may already know that you can lose up to 40% of the muscle mass you had in your 20’s as you enter your 70’s. This isn’t good news if you want to preserve your strength and ability to comfortably lift objects around your house.

The good news is that strength training exercise can reduce the decline in muscle mass associated with aging. Unfortunately, many seniors hesitate to strength train hard enough to see results, fearing they’ll injure themselves. The question then surfaces, how hard should you exercise?

It’s hard to give a generic answer to this question since it will differ with each individual depending on their age and health status. Fortunately, a scientist has made it a bit easier to gauge how hard you’re working during your strength training workout by developing the Borg Category Rating Scale. This is a scale that helps you determine how hard you feel like you’re working in a way that can be quantified. Here’s how the scale works:

If you describe your effort level as extremely light, it would correspond to a Borg category rating of 8 or below. If you feel like your work level is very light, the Borg rating would be a 9 or 10. If you would describe your effort level as fairly light, the Borg rating would be an 11 or 12. A somewhat hard level would be a 13 or 14, while a hard level would be a 15 or 16. Once you get past 17, you get into the very hard and very, very hard zones until you reach 20 which is maximum effort.

If you want to make gains in strength, you should slowly work up to a Borg effort level of at least 13, although a 15 or 16 would be better. You need this intensity to build muscle to offset your declining muscle mass. Of course, you want to check with your doctor before exercising at this level to make sure you don’t have health problems that may be worsened by strenuous exercise.

Over time your workout will become easier which means you’ll need to challenge yourself a bit more to continue to see gains in strength and muscle mass. This is a good sign. It means you’re developing strength and restoring muscle tissue.

As you continue to make gains, you can adjust your workout appropriately to meet your changing senior fitness requirements. At the same time, you can congratulate yourself on a job well done. It takes discipline and perseverance to stick with a strength training program.


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