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How to Strengthen Leg Muscles in the Elderly

Age-related changes affect everyone. While they are unavoidable, many are manageable, and they do not have to be detrimental to one’s health or daily life.

Knowing what to expect and how to manage these changes is vital in helping the elderly feel independence and to continue to live a fulfilled life.

Some of the most common age-related changes include:

Slower reflexes, which result in decreased reaction time.

Slower metabolism, which may lead to weight gain.

Decreased bone density and increased bone porosity, which increases the chance of fractures.

Stiff joints, causing many to become less active to avoid pain.

Of all of the changes in the elderly, musculoskeletal system changes can feel quite challenging. The elasticity (ability to stretch) of blood vessels and muscles decreases with age.

Additionally, alterations in the musculoskeletal system are often accompanied by bones that are more brittle and easily break, as well as muscles that tire with what even minimal activity.

Leg Strengthening Exercises in the Elderly

Exercise is an integral part of maintaining good health. An exercise regimen that includes strength training is essential to help slow and minimize age-related changes.

For example, exercises that are aimed at strengthening the muscles of the legs is very important. Strong leg muscles help with balance and coordination, which can help reduce the risk of falls.

Every person is unique regarding what his/her strengths and weaknesses are. Depending on health history, one individual may be able to do some exercises that another cannot.

Most exercises can be adapted to be easier and progress to become more challenging, depending upon a person’s individual abilities/desires. The most important thing is to find ​what works for you personally and be consistent.

Walking to Build Leg Strength

The muscles of the body are connected in an intricate maze and they all work together to provide movement and support. In addition to burning fat and calories, walking is a great way to build muscles. Walking shapes and tones muscles of the legs, hips and buttocks.

Additionally, walking increases the strength and endurance of the muscles in the legs and back, which means that you may be able to participate in more activities, with less fatigue.

The leg muscles most affected by walking include:

Hamstring Muscles​: The muscle in the back of the thigh is known as the “hamstring” muscle. When a person walks, the phase of walking called “push off” works this large muscle and helps to build strength and balance.

Calf Muscles:​ The calf muscles provide movement for lifting the heel of the foot off the ground when walking. Walking is a great way to strengthen these muscles and to provide support to the ankles and feet.

Quadriceps muscles ​(“quads”) are located at the front of the thigh and are stretched as the leg is extended during the walking phase.

In addition to strengthening leg muscles, walking also aids in promoting stronger muscles of the hips, buttocks, abdomen, arms and the heart. When implementing a walking regimen, it is very important to remember to stretch before and after walking.

This allows your muscles a chance to “warm up” and “cool down” pre and post work-out, which may help prevent an injury.

Within two to four weeks of starting a walking exercise program, some results may be apparent. For example, some definition of muscles may be visible and increased stamina will be apparent.

Depending on one’s starting fitness level, it may take four months or longer to notice a difference in leg strength. ​Remember, consistency is the key to success!

Other Leg Strengthening Exercises for Seniors

An individual’s level of fitness and strength will determine which exercises he/she should start with. When beginning an exercise regimen, it’s best to start with simple exercises and progress to harder ones as you begin to build strength in the muscles.

Some common leg strengthening exercises include:

1. Ankle Circles​: While sitting or standing, lift one leg off the floor and rotate the ankle in a circular motion. Perform 5 rotations in one ankle and then do the other ankle.

You can begin by doing 2 to 3 sets of this exercise in each ankle. This will help improve flexibility of the ankle and is a good warm up for other leg exercises.

2. Leg Curls: ​Stand behind a chair and hold onto the back of the chair for support. Put your weight on one leg and then lift the opposite knee. Bend the knee as far as you can and hold it for 3 seconds.

Slowly lower your leg and repeat the exercise on the alternate leg. Do this in sets of 5. This exercise will help strengthen the hamstring muscles and will improve balance and posture.

3. Step Up​: Place a box or step (usually 4-6 inches high) on the floor. Step up with your left leg. Count to three as you hold and balance yourself. Lower yourself carefully and then repeat with the opposite leg.

This exercise is very helpful in promoting balance and coordination. Remember, it’s ok to have a chair close by to help balance yourself as you build your strength. You can do it also with your mobility walker.

4. Calf Raises​: Slowly lift your heels off the floor until you are standing on your tip-toes. Hold the position for five seconds and then lower your heels to a flat position. Repeat this five times.

This exercise helps build calf muscles and produces more stepping power when walking on hilly areas or even ground.

5. Squats:​ Start by sitting in a chair and using your leg muscles, push yourself to a standing position, then slowly lower yourself back to a seated position.

As you become stronger, you can stand in front of the chair and lower yourself to an almost seated position and then stand again. This exercise can be repeated five to ten times.

It will help improve range of motion and strengthen the muscles of the buttocks and thighs.

How Diet Affects Bone Strength

Diet and exercise go hand in hand when it comes to good health. In fact, eating right is about much more than managing a person’s weight.

Strength-training exercises are great for building muscle strength and endurance, but muscles also need proper nutrition to help reach and maintain optimal functioning. Good sources of protein help build muscle and muscle burn fat.

The best sources of good protein include:

1. Fish:​ Salmon is a great source of protein. It is rich in Vitamin D which means it gives the benefit of strengthening both muscles and bones.

2. Eggs:​ One egg contains approximately 7 grams of protein (with the yolk). It is also a good source of calcium, which is beneficial to muscles, as well.

3. Lean Meats:​ While steaks do not have to be completely avoided, lean meat, such as pork, chicken and lean red meats provide good sources of protein without a lot of fat.

4. Greek Yogurt:​ There are several types of yogurt available. Greek yogurt is packed full of protein. In fact, many brands boast about 20 grams of protein per serving.

5. Nut Butters:​ Eating healthy snacks is a great way to add some protein to your diet and give you that extra boost of energy during the day. Peanut butter and almond butter are great tasting sources of protein that provide a powerful snack on the go. Pair it with fruit, such as a banana or an apple!

The Risk of Bone Fractures

Bone fractures are very common in older adults because of the loss of bone density and an increased risk of osteoporosis.

While medical management of bone porosity and poor bone density are important, there is evidence to support the idea that exercise can i​mprove bone density and strength​, therefore decreasing the risk of fractures.

Weight-bearing exercises and strength training are great ways to reduce these risks.

Safety First

Before beginning any diet or exercise regimen, it is always important to talk with your primary physician. Because changes in diet and physical activity may cause changes in your body’s response to and need for specific medications, your doctor will want to follow your progress.

Also, always report any changes or concerns to your physician and never start or stop a medication without his/her advice.
As time passes and you begin to feel stronger, you may feel like you are able to increase the length of time you exercise or the amount of repetitions you do in a specific workout.

If you feel weak or if you experience any type of illness that requires you to take a break from workouts, work your way back into a routine slowly. Progression is good, but remember the phrase “Train, Don’t Strain.”

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