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Stepping Up With Jeanne

by Jeri Massi

I introduced my 76 year old friend, Jeanne, to weightlifting in early January. Jeanne has been an avid swimmer all her life, until last summer when a leg injury sidelined her for ten weeks. In November, she suffered a racing heartbeat that accelerated to 200 beats per minute. The cause of this incident was never found, but after a few weeks of rest, Jeanne agreed to start on a weight lifting program with me.

Weight lifting, more formally known as weight resistance training, improves a component of fitness that is different from the component improved by cardio vascular exercise. Cardiovascular exercises consisting of walking and swimming keep the heart and lungs strong but do not increase muscle mass. Weight lifting improves strength, increases muscle mass, and in some instances. improves certain health conditions by stimulating some metabolic processes.

Geriatric fitness researchers are aware that inactivity takes a far heavier toll on older men and women than on any other age group. One weightlifting study among nursing home residents found that the participants whose average age was 90 increased strength almost three-fold during the eight weeks residents participated regularly in systematic weight lifting routines.After only three weeks of inactivity, however, they lost almost half of their regained strength.

As soon as Jeanne was able to, she resumed her walking schedule. I could look out my window on sunny afternoons and see her trekking along the grassy lawns of our single-story apartment buildings, accumulating mileage on the endless ribbons of rolling sidewalk. Usually, when I rush outdoors to exercise, I wear ragged sweats and pull my hair back with a rubber band. Jeanne never leaves her house unless her short, fluffy white hair is carefully curled and brushed. Even at the gym, her cotton slacks are neatly pressed, and she wears jerseys rather than t-shirts. She pays careful attention to details, and her participation in regular walks has paid off. When we started the weight lifting program, she was more able than many women her age to take on a full body routine. Her coordination and dexterity are good.

A basic test of strength is the chest press. A person pushes a weight, usually a weighted bar, away from their own chest. Normally, this exercise is done flat on a bench. The person presses weights from the chest straight up, brings them down again and repeats the action ten times to make one set.

On our first day together, Jeanne could not chest press two five-pound dumb bells, one in each hand. I took her to the chest press machine, which allows the person to sit upright and push two handles at chest level forward, and then bring them back to the chest, and then repeat the action ten times for a set. On the machine, Jeanne was only able to do 15 lbs. On a weight machine, a person can do a heavier set of weights than can be done freely on a bench. Weight machines use cables and offer a certain amount of support through the lift, so they are easier for beginners.

Lifting "freely," without a machine or cables, forces the person to use additional muscles to balance the weights and regulate how quickly or how slowly they perform the action of the lift. Machine weight lifting is best for beginners in order to learn proper motion and lift safely, but free weight lifting is still the best form of weight lifting for building strength efficiently.

After our first weight session, Jeanne viewed weight lifting as a necessary chore. She thanked me for the time I had devoted to her instruction. A week later, in our third session, she was moving through the exercises with more assurance and focus. The next week, she experienced a burst of that euphoria that weight lifters understand. After we finished, I asked her how she felt.

"I feel good!" she exclaimed. She beamed at me through her thick, round glasses. "I feel lots stronger and ready to get some work done!"

For Jeanne, this means cleaning her house. She put her arm around me as we walked from the gym to our cars. Her voice was happy and confident. "Thank you for all the time you're putting into this!"

"You're welcome," I told her. "We have to keep you independent so you can go on being my neighbor. You know, so I can get all that free advice so conveniently." I smiled at her.

She met the comment with a burst of laughter, hugged me, and said goodbye until next time.

Consistent weight training does tend to enhance moods. A sense of well being is one of the common benefits of methodically and routinely exercising all the muscles of the body.

I was glad that Jeanne's spirits were so good, because in our next session, I started to focus on specific muscles within the major muscle groups. The muscles of the leg group are made up of the gluteals ("glutes), which are the muscles of the back side. These muscles guide us as we sit and stand, or as we crouch. They also provide some lift for these actions. The hamstrings run down the back of the upper leg and assist in a variety of tasks. They actually help us lift things correctly if we have to pick something up from the floor. They provide the spring for every jump that we make, and they also help retract us down into a crouch or erect the upper body up from a crouch. On the front of the upper leg, the quadriceps also assist in any motion that involves springing forward, but they are most useful in lifting the lower leg in a kicking motion or raising the knee. The calf muscles are in the back of the lower leg, running from the back of the knee to the heel. They help a person stand up on her toes and assist in jumps, especially the short skips.

All the muscles of the leg work together to perform other vital actions, especially for senior women. They stabilize the leg throughout the stepping motion and assist in maintaining balance. More than anything else, I was concerned about the danger of Jeanne falling.

For her, a fall could destroy her independence. A fall can break bones or cause other injuries. Having to go into any type of convalescent care would drain savings and remove her from the productive, happy life that she now leads. Developing leg strength is crucial for the more mature woman who wants to stay independent.

When we worked together recently, I tested Jeanne's hamstring muscles with an exercise called an isolated leg curl. To do a leg curl, a person must keep the knee stable and lift the heel until it touches the back side. I had already noticed that Jeanne's leg curling was weak. When I put her on a special machine that isolates the hamstring of each leg, I found that she could not move a two and a half pound weight more than a few inches.

This means that with Jeanne's sitting and standing up, walking and stair climbing, she is compensating for this weakness with other muscles: holding onto something to assist her to rise, leaning forward to let the quadriceps take the stress and pushing off from a hard chair with her hands. Weak hamstrings mean that if a person has to walk on steep, slippery, or unstable ground, the muscles may not have enough strength to stabilize the stepping action and the person could suffer a fall.

Since everyone's muscles begin to lose mass after the age of about 28, the problem can only get worse unless a person begins to increase muscle mass through direct effort. We went to the very basics of the leg curl. I went to Jeanne's house and showed her how to stand against the cold kitchen stove, brace the right knee against the front of the stove and lift the right heel up as close to her backside as she could. I instructed her to do this twenty times each leg to make one set, and to do three sets a day. Jeanne faithfully followed these directions, and when we next met at the gym, she was able to move the two and a half pound weight further on each isolated leg curl. We also attended to 'step-ups' more ardently, stepping up and down on a stable platform, working the muscles that make for a stable stepping action.

In performing her exercises, Jeanne is showing vast improvement. She can now chest press two five-pound dumb bells, and she can chest press 30 pounds on the machine. There are three basic exercises for the upper body (chest press, shoulder press, wide-bar pull down), and Jeanne has almost doubled the weight she can lift during these exercises. This is a terrific improvement.

Another benefit has been Jeanne's presence in the gym. I enjoy seeing the beefy, tatooed, shaven-headed guys greeting her. I've always noticed that truly dedicated athletes, no matter what look they adopt for themselves, respect other people who are willing to consistently work at improving their health, fitness, and skills by regular exercise. The regularly attending women and men at the gym are quickly making room for seniors. Since Jeanne started, I've noticed three newcomers in this age group. One of the professional trainers updates me on Jeanne's progress and another has offered to unearth a textbook from college that includes a chapter on weight lifting for those over 65.

The time is right for older men and women to claim a place for themselves in consistent physical training. Of course a physician's approval is essential before beginning a training program. A good course of instruction is also necessary. While other people might raise their eyebrows at the sight of these older athletes hefting barbells people who love physical fitness are always willing to make room and offer encouragement---especially to the oldest of newcomers.

Part One: The Mouse and the Martial Artist

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