Senior Workout

Aerobic Exercise or Strength Training Best for Seniors?

Senior WorkoutWith baby boomers hitting retirement age, more and more studies have been looking for the secret to aging gracefully. While the creams and surgeries get a lot of attention, most scientific studies consistently point to diet and exercise as the real fountain of youth.

On the exercise front, previous studies have looked at how the functional changes associated with aging can be slowed with proper physical capability. In fact, one study clearly showed that vigorous exercise performed three to four times a week improved mobility and reduced the risk of death.[1]

Not surprisingly, most of the studies have looked at physical exercise and its effect on the heart and lungs, as well as coordination, flexibility, balance and agility. But we all know there is more to feeling youthful than simply being able to negotiate your way through the living room. There is the emotional side of life as well.

On this front, several studies have looked at how exercise can enhance vigor and ease tension and fatigue. Exercise has even been shown to be an effective treatment for easing anxiety, depression, stress, hostility and anger.

It is this combination of physical and emotional health that is the secret to aging gracefully and, more importantly, independently.

Yet, while most experts agree that exercise provides all of these critical benefits, there is some disagreement as to the best form of exercise. Some vote in favor of aerobic exercise, while others point to strength training.

In an effort to settle the debate, researchers from Portugal set out to determine the effect of both aerobic and strength training on the mood and functional fitness in senior citizens.[2] As a side note, they were also curious to see if there was any correlation between mood and increased body mass and BMI.

Let’s Get Physical

Researchers recruited 78 seniors aged 65 to 95 (average age was 76 years old) from a senior living community in Portugal. All lived independently and were in good health, but were mostly sedentary.

The divided the participants into three groups:

  • A control group (no exercise)
  • An aerobic group
  • A strength-training group

They took a series of measurements at the start of the study to establish a baseline and again at the end of the 16-week study period. In addition to weighing the subjects and establishing body mass and BMI, they also had them fill out a mood questionnaire that assessed several emotional factors, including:

  • Depression
  • Tension and anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Vigor
  • Anger and hostility
  • Confusion and bewilderment

Researchers also gave the participants a multi-tiered exercise test. After doing a 10-minute warm-up, all participants were asked to perform six different tests:

  1. Chair stand: How many times they could stand up and sit back down in 30 seconds. Tests lower body strength.
  2. Arm curl: How many curls could be done in 30 seconds. Tests upper body strength.
  3. Chair sit and reach: How far they could reach down an extended leg while seated at the edge of the chair. Tests lower body flexibility.
  4. Back scratch: How close they could get their fingertips with one arm overhead reaching down the back and the other arm reaching up the back. Tests upper body flexibility.
  5. 8-foot up-and-go: How quickly they could get up from the chair, walk around a cone placed eight feet away, and sit back down. Tests agility and balance.
  6. 6-minute walk test: Measured the distance covered on a 50-meter (about 55 yards) course in six minutes. Tests aerobic capacity.

Then they got down to business.

People in the aerobic group exercised three times a week for 45 minutes per session. For the first four weeks, they exercised at 40 percent to 50 percent of maximum heart rate. The second four weeks, that increased to 51 percent to 60 percent. Weeks nine to 12 saw an additional increase to 61 percent to 70 percent of maximum heart rate, with the final four weeks pushing them to 71 percent to 85 percent. (Maximum heart rate is typically defined as 220 minus your age. So if you are 50 years old, your maximum heart rate is pegged at 170 beats per minute.)

The exercise sessions consisted of a 10-to-15-minute warm-up and 5-to-10-minute cool down. Weeks one to four involved 20 minutes of low-impact walking and stepping sequences. That increased to 25 minutes during weeks five to nine, and increased to 30 minutes the final eight weeks. They also did arm curls, arm raises and arm crosses in both seated and standing positions.

The strength-training group used a combination of calisthenics weeks one to six, then introduced elastic bands the last 10 weeks. Participants performed a total of eight exercises:

  • Chair stands
  • Standing toe raises and toe pointing
  • Hip abduction and adduction
  • Arm pushes
  • One-arm row with elastic band
  • Bicep curl with bands
  • Shoulder abduction and flexion (arm raises to the front and side)
  • Wall and chair pushups

Participants performed these exercises three times a week with increased intensity as the weeks progressed:

  • Weeks 1-2: 1 set with 8 repetitions
  • Weeks 3-4: 1 set with 12 reps
  • Weeks 5-6: 2 sets with 8 reps each
  • Weeks 7-8: 2 sets with 10 reps each
  • Weeks 9-10: 2 sets with 12 reps each
  • Weeks 11-12: 2 sets with 15 reps each
  • Weeks 13-14: 3 sets with 12 reps each
  • Weeks 15-16: 3 sets with 15 reps each

With this level of intensity, the results were not surprising…

4 Months For Physical Freedom

While there was no difference in functional fitness or mood between all three groups at baseline, there were significant changes just 16 weeks later.

Both exercise groups saw significant improvements in nearly every fitness area. When it came to lower body strength, the aerobic group saw a 65 percent increase, while the strength group enjoyed a 34 percent increase. With upper body strength, the aerobic group had a 31 percent increase, while the strength group fared slightly better with a 35 percent increase.

As for lower body flexibility, the aerobic group improved by 8 centimeters, while the strength group gained an additional 6 centimeters. Upper body flexibility also improved, with the aerobic group reaching 3 centimeters farther. The strength group doubled these gains, reaching a full 6 centimeters further after 16 weeks.

When it came to agility and balance, the aerobic group saw an 11 percent increase while the strength group enjoyed a 14 percent improvement. Interestingly, both groups improved their six-minute walk test by 14 percent.

As you would expect, there were no fitness improvements in the control group.

But, as you may not expect, there were also no significant improvements in mood in any of the groups with just a couple of exceptions. The control group reported more confusion after the testing period, while the strength-training group had improved vigor.

But researchers did find that there was a significant correlation between increased body mass and BMI and increased tension, fatigue and confusion. They hypothesized that this may be due to the connection between higher BMI and increased risk for metabolic syndrome, which often includes increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and higher incidence of depression.[3]

Researchers concluded, “Strength-based training can be as effective as aerobic-based training in developing physical skills that support functional mobility in later years.”

However, they did not reach any conclusions about the lack of improvement in mood. They did point out that their questionnaire only had one positive factor listed (vigor), and that was the only mood change that was seen in one of the exercise groups. Future studies would be well served to include a better mood assessment to truly determine the impact of exercise on emotional health.

Reap the Benefits Sooner Rather Than Later

There is no question that exercise needs to be a regular and consistent part of your health care routine. As this study shows, less than an hour a day just three days a week has tremendous benefits.

While this study focused on either aerobic or strength training, your best bet is to do a bit of both. If you are new to exercise, you can follow the same exercise regimens used in the study, making sure to challenge yourself to go further or with more intensity every two to four weeks.


[1] Paterson, DH et al. Ageing and physical activity: evidence to develop exercise recommendations for older adults. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007;32:S69-108.

[2] Martins, R et al. Effects of strength and aerobic-based training on functional fitness, mood and the relationship between fatness and mood in older adults. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011 Sep 5;51(3):489-96.

[3] Vogelzangs, N et al. Hypercortisolemic depression is associated with the metabolic syndrome in late-life. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 207;32:151-9.