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Syracuse University research team studies benefits of weight training among the elderly
Syracuse University research team studies benefits of weight training among the elderlyFebruary 07, 2001Jonathan Hayjhay@syr.edu
Before coming to Syracuse University, Lori Ploutz-Snyder spent time working on her dissertation at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, studying muscle disuse and the resulting muscle atrophy in astronauts. As an assistant professor and director of the musculoskeletal research lab in the School of Education’s Department of Exercise Science, she wanted to continue her work but to also make it useful for a wider audience. “I found that the same principles of muscle atrophy that occurred rapidly in astronauts who had spent time in space were applicable to muscle atrophy in the elderly over a longer period of time,” Ploutz-Snyder says. “Not that many people fly in space, but everyone gets older.” With the assistance of a grant from the National Institute on Aging, Ploutz-Snyder worked with exercise science doctoral student Todd Manini and Douglas Wolf, professor in The Maxwell School’s Center for Policy Research, to study the benefits of building muscle strength for the elderly. Specifically, the research team measured how much lower body strength older people need in order to complete everyday tasks. The positive effects of resistance (weight) training for the elderly wasn’t studied until around 15 years ago. Before that time, there were concerns about elderly weight training because of a fear of injury from the activity. Studies in the past 10 years show the same benefits of weight training for the elderly as there are for younger people. Ploutz-Snyder says the catchphrase of “weight training is recommended for men and women of all ages” is popular in the exercise science field. She says that the main thing lacking in the phrase is a definition of goals.
The SU group set out to define the goals of muscle building for the elderly in a context that would be applicable to everyday activities like rising out of a chair, walking up stairs and walking across a street intersection. Manini, who was a master’s student when the project began two years ago, went to local senior citizen centers to recruit volunteers for the research. Manini was able to find 100 volunteers ranging in age from 50 to 92, who came to SU over the summer of 1999 to take part in the study. When they arrived, Manini recorded their height, weight, age and gave them a self-evaluation to judge how difficult they felt it was to rise from a chair, walk up stairs and walk on a flat surface. The volunteers were then tested on the three activities and given scores for how well they could perform the tasks. After the activities, they were tested on a leg extension machine to see how much weight they could lift using their quadriceps (thigh muscles). The results of the test were expressed in a weight-to-strength ratio. It was found that in order to complete the tasks, the volunteers needed approximately an amount of leg strength that was equal to their body weight–or a ratio of one. “The results actually turned out to be simple to understand and allow us to provide a goal for elderly people who want to live independently,” Ploutz-Snyder says. “Basically, people who had a ratio of 1.5 or higher had little or no trouble with the activities while anyone below a one struggled.” Although finding the weight-to-strength ratio necessary to complete the tasks was the key to the research, the self-evaluation portion of the study was important as well, according to Ploutz-Snyder. The questions were compiled by Wolf from common national surveys administered to help formulate national health policies. The SU team found that 75 percent of the time, the test results matched the self-report, but in cases it didn’t match, the volunteers almost always overestimated their ability. Ploutz-Snyder and Wolf plan to work on follow-up research on the discrepancy. Ploutz-Snyder and Manini also plan to begin research that will take people who have a ratio near or below one and train them to see how quickly their ability to perform everyday tasks improves. “I really feel exercise can benefit this population more than almost any other,” Manini says. “They improve their muscle strength very quickly, and it’s very rewarding to work with them.” Ploutz-Snyder says because the average age in America is getting higher each year, physical fitness for the elderly will continue to be a hot topic. “Right now, most strategies are aimed at correcting disabilities once they’ve already happened, but our goal is to identify people who are struggling early on and prevent them from getting really weak,” she says.