Sargent professor: you're never too old to lift weights
by Brian Fitzgerald
A decade ago Roger Fielding (SAR'83) began telling elderly men and women that iron was important to their health -- pumping iron, that is. Nowadays, after an increase in scholarship on the subject all over the world, it's well understood that weight training -- traditionally associated with young athletes -- is beneficial to older adults as well.
Now Fielding is taking his research a step further. His latest study compares the physiologic and functional effects of muscle power training to conventional strength training. "In the past few years a lot has been written on strength training for elderly people," says Fielding, an assistant professor in Sargent College's department of health sciences. "But none of these studies have examined the effects of weight training to improve their muscle power -- the maximum rate at which a muscle or muscle group can perform work."
Fielding recently received a two-year Brookdale National Fellowship, along with a two-year grant from the American Federation for Aging Research, for his study "A Comparison of Progressive Resistance Training and Skeletal Muscle Power Training on Physiologic and Functional Adaptations in Frail Older Women." He intends to determine whether the quick, explosive bursts of energy necessary for power training produce better results than the slow, deliberate movements used in customary training, which requires more repetitions with less weight.
The latter is known to build endurance and reverse sarcopenia, an age-related loss in muscle mass. But it is unknown what type of weight training is effective in preventing falls, a leading cause of disabling and fatal injuries among the elderly. "With power training, there is a velocity component that may be very helpful in correcting your balance," says Fielding. "If you think about it, when you're about to fall, it's not a slow, force-generating movement that you need to counter the fall. It's a rapid movement."
Could an exercise program boost a falling person's ability to create enough force in a fraction of a second to regain his or her footing? Fielding has enrolled 75 frail women aged 70 and above for his study. One group will lift weights to develop their hip and knee extensor muscles, another will lift weights to increase muscle power.
Research has shown that programs to strengthen leg muscles help older people walk not only at a faster pace and for longer periods of time, but also with greater coordination. Still, he says, the jury is out on what exactly is the best exercise program for seniors. And few exercise physiologists have considered the causes of falling and the mechanics of regaining stability in midstumble. Fielding's study is a unique blend of gerontology and sports medicine to determine what is the best training intervention for the elderly.
"It's important for the older population to exercise -- period," says Fielding. "How much they exercise directly affects how well they are able to live independently." He adds that elderly men and women whose exercise program includes weight training are better able to cope with the demands of daily living, such as shopping or using public transportation.
After receiving his degree in health sciences at Sargent College, Fielding began working with William Evans, who headed the human physiology laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. "We began to take some of the techniques we had learned studying athletes and apply them to some of the problems of older people," says Fielding. "It's rewarding to take an interest in exercise and carry it over to a group that could enjoy tremendous benefits -- preventing disability and specific diseases." Indeed, resistance training has been found to be effective in managing such chronic illnesses as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Sargent College Dean Alan Jette and Maria Fiataron, now chief of Tufts' human physiology laboratory, are Fielding's mentors for the Brookdale Fellowship. "Early in my career I started studying healthy older people, and I looked at what happens to nondiseased individuals when they age," he says. "Now we're getting more aggressive and applying this research to people who have physical disabilities -- victims of strokes, heart failure, and adult-onset diabetes. We've found that even people with very poor heart function can still improve their strength significantly with weight training."
Obviously Fielding isn't talking about a weightlifting regimen that is anywhere near that of a Mr. Universe competitor. "Many of them are too frail to even lift the bar on the equipment you see at a health club," he says. "They're starting with a low amount of weight on a special air-compressed weight system. But many exercises can be performed at home. Ankle weights, which are available at stores, can be extremely helpful for people who are recovering from strokes and are striving to live independently."
Fielding's study could have tremendous implications for elderly health care: 40 percent of hospital admissions among people over 65 are the result of fall-related injuries. Almost half of those hospitalized are discharged to nursing homes. "Hopefully, with the results of our study, we'll see even more research in this area," he says.