My mother swam every day and remained fit into her late 70s. But when I told her I was getting bigger arm muscles, she looked at me with concern: “Why would you want that?” she said.
Many women think that lifting weights is only for men, and will just make them look unfeminine. Despite my mother’s regular exercise, in her middle 70s she suffered a series of falls. Each time, she had a spell in a rehab facility and had to fight hard against anxiety and depression. Strength training, I believe, was the missing piece in her otherwise excellent health habits.
Studies generally show that strength-training is a good way to prevent falls by boosting your flexibility and balance. Women have less muscle than men to begin with, and as we age, muscles naturally weaken. Although walking, swimming, and other aerobic exercise uses your muscles, they don’t go far enough to fight this natural muscle loss. One large study found that among women in their 60s, 24 percent had become unhealthily weak. Once they reach their 80s, 43 to 60 percent of women have grown frail. Strength training can also reduce the symptoms of arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, back pain, and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When we set out to lose weight, we think about changing what we eat and cutting down on calories, and some people — not enough! — also increase their aerobic exercise. But again, building muscle is the missing piece for many dieters. If you build your muscles, you will have an easier time both losing fat and keeping it off. Muscle consumes calories and raises your metabolic rate. In fact, strength training can provide up to a 15 percent increase in metabolic rate. Building muscle will also help your body manage blood sugar and avoid or manage diabetes.
Strength training is good for your heart: leaner bodies have less risk of heart problems. The American Heart Association recommends both aerobic exercise and strength training as a way to reduce the risk of heart disease and as therapy for patients who have had a heart attack or stroke.
Strength training is also good for your mood, especially if you’ve been dragged down by other illnesses. Feeling strong and meeting your goals boosts confidence, and the effort tends to improve sleep and reduce symptoms of insomnia. Think about it: your body strength is within your power to change, when many other things may not be.
So what’s stopping you? A program at Tufts University sponsored by the CDC can get older adults started with questions to score their own strength and identify their goals, advice on how to find equipment, and a set of exercises for the first seven weeks.
You can begin without using weights, by doing squats, bird dogs and other strength-building moves. After a certain point, using weights — I like kettle balls — will allow you to advance. Ask for a session with a trainer if you belong to a gym. If you’ll be using home weights, you might pay for a private session to learn safe technique. One set of eight to 12 repetitions, working the muscles to the point of fatigue, is a reasonable goal for each muscle group. Rest two days between workouts and aim to exercise each muscle group at least two times per week. If you over push and injure yourself, you’ll lose time, so take it slow.
When you’re feeling ambitious, you might consider this kettle-ball routine.
November 12, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN