Self-selected resistance training in inactive older women

Could a new approach to resistance training improve physical fitness and psychological responses to exercise?

Physical activity is highly recommended to limit the negative effects of aging. One of its components is resistance training (RT), which has been proved effective in improving various dimensions of health, including muscle strength and mass, global function, psychological and even social aspects. The World Health Organization recommends for older people to perform resistance training at least twice a week in addition to endurance training.

However, it seems that the overall proportion of older people meeting these recommendations is rather low. Moreover, a huge number of people tend to abandon physical activities (and therefore, RT) in a few months of their involvement in them, which in the end reduces the number of older persons practicing RT and increases inactivity. 

Strategies to incite them to be active are studied in the literature and, among them, psychological aspects of exercise (particularly affective responses such as pleasure/ displeasure) have shown to be strongly linked with continued exercise activity and behaviour. For example, previous studies showed that self-selected exercise load (i.e., individuals choose their own exercise intensity) was a good way of fostering autonomy and pleasure, increasing involvement in exercise. Similar conclusions were found for self-selected RT approaches (SSRT): more pleasure, less exertion, positive physical adaptations (muscle strength and mass, function).

The present RCT therefore assessed the effects of a twelve-week SSRT programme on physical fitness in inactive older women, while investigating their psychological response to exercise. The approach was found as effective to improve physical activity and increase pleasure among this population.

The study showed that participants in the SSRT group significantly improved their maximum isotonic and isokinetic muscle strength. Functional capacity, flexibility and cardiorespiratory fitness also improved while body mass decreased in the SSRT group compared to the control group. Women described exercise as pleasant during the whole RT programme (from 2–3 points on the Feeling Scale).

The authors concluded that a twelve-week SSRT program was effective to improve physical fitness and stimulate feelings of pleasure in inactive/ untrained/ deconditioned older women while maintaining motivation.

> From: Elsangedy et al., Percept Mot Skills 128 (2021) 467-491 . All rights reserved to The Author(s). Click here for the online summary.

Methodological quality according to the author of the summary: moderate (PEDro score: 6/10)

Expert opinion

Positive effects found in relation to functional capacity are particularly interesting as this dimension of health is a key element in favour of autonomy of older adults. Not only did women improve on handgrip strength and the chair stand test, but also non-specific items such as agility, dynamic balance and flexibility (due to reduction in passive tension and stiffness of soft tissue around joints).

Furthermore, while rating of perceived exertion remained stable over the whole programme (increase of self-selected load with a need to meet a perception of pleasure or effort), participants reported pleasure during the entire SSRT protocol (“fairly good” and “good”) with higher pleasure described in the last four weeks of the programme (maybe because women got used to exercises). These results are in line with earlier findings showing positive affective responses to resistance exercise with self-selected loads. But the present RCT goes further as the SSRT programme was also perceived as pleasant on a long-term basis.

The authors noticed that even with a load of low-to-moderate intensity (even below some recommendations), a SSRT programme based on eight exercises (three sets of fifteen repetitions with self-selected load) may still be effective to improve muscle strength and mass in older women. Such an approach may be an alternative option for exercise prescription, especially for new and inactive individuals starting RT.

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