While virtually everyone is aware of the benefits of aerobic exercise, there still seems to be a lot of confusion about the subject of weight training and its place in an overall wellness program. Maybe it’s some residual confusion left over from the “Pumping Iron” days when weight training was something done only by bodybuilders and the Muscle Beach crowd. Who knows. Whatever the reason, it’s time to put some of the myths about weight training to rest.
We now know that weight training, far from being just a vanity pursuit, is a critical part of health and wellness and that it can benefit anyone, regardless of sex or age. Weight training may be one of the most effective strategies you can take to prevent osteoporosis, and that’s equally true if you’re a man or a woman. Weight training increases bone mineral density, it improves glucose metabolism, it’s one of the most effective things you can do to increase HDL (the “good” cholesterol), it raises your metabolism (making it easier to lose fat) and it improves your ability to function in the world independently as you get older. All that, and it makes you look good in the bargain!
Dr. William Evans, director of the Nutrition, Exercise and Metabolism Laboratory at the Center of Aging at University of Arkansas Medical School has shown that the capacity to respond to strength training exercises is preserved into very late life. Dr. Evans studied nursing home residents over the age of 80 and found that with ten weeks of strength training exercises it was possible to triple and quadruple muscle strength and improve walking speed and balance. His subjects had a renewed ability to climb stairs, giving them much more mobility and independence, and they showed an increased interest in other activities. His oldest subject was 98! These studies led to community based training programs in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to initiate exercise programs for older people.
With younger people, the goal of a strength training program is to create or preserve enough muscle to prevent the metabolism from slowing down, to strengthen the bones, and to give the body shape and tone. With an elderly population, one of the main goals is to develop sufficient muscular strength and endurance to allow for a more complete and independent life.
There are psychological benefits from strength training as well as physical. Many people report having a wonderful sense of mastery when they begin to feel their physical strength improve. And a good weight workout can trigger feel-good neurochemicals called endorphins which can help boost mood and self-esteem and make you feel a lot more balanced.
It’s not hard to start a strength training program. You don’t even need any equipment, although it’s nice to have. You can begin with a few homebased exercises like push-ups and squats, lunges and crunches. Detailed descriptions of how to perform these exercises are very easy to find in books like “Weight Training For Dummies” by Liz Neperonet, and on the Internet at sites like i-Village. You can also do some basic weight training exercises at home with a simple set of dumbbells. And if you do have access to a gym, so much the better, as there will be an endless variety of machines and equipment to choose from.
Remember that weight training is not necessarily about building “big” muscles. And the idea that it will make women’s muscles huge and bulky is a complete myth. For one thing, muscle mass is highly dependent on levels of testosterone, and men have a good 20–30 times the amount that women do, making it much harder for women to build big muscles despite what we see on the covers of the bodybuilding magazines. Two to three reasonably challenging workouts a week will not make anyone’s muscles huge, regardless of gender. What it will do is produce noticeable and measurable health benefits, and in the bargain make you look a lot better as well.
Beginners should start with light weights and higher repetitions (say anywhere from 12–20 per movement). Pick a few movements (exercises) to start with and limit your workout to these three or four. I suggest only one set per exercise movement in the beginning though after a few weeks of getting used to it, you can certainly increase to two sets of each exercise. Always warm up with something that gets your circulation going, like walking or light stretching or just moving around to your favorite music—after that, even a full body routine needn’t take more than a half hour. Most people will notice a nice little progression in strength and ability to do the exercises after as little as three or four weeks.
There is sometimes a little bit of muscle soreness the day after a workout, especially in the very beginning. Not to worry. This is usually attributed to lactic acid, but is most likely due to a number of other muscular “waste products” as well. Be sure to drink plenty of water to flush all the metabolic byproducts out of the system, and make sure to give your body what it needs to tone, repair and rebuild in the form of real food and pure water.
The soreness is usually temporary. The benefits of strength training to your health—and to your mood and your sense of well-being—are not.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, (aka "The Rogue Nutritionist") is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health. He is a board-certified nutritionist with a master’s degree in psychology and the author of nine books on health, healing, food and longevity including two best-sellers, “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” and “Living Low Carb”. A frequent guest on television and radio, he has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, and CBS as an expert on nutrition, weight loss, and longevity. He is a past member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Men’s Health magazine, is the Nutrition Editor for Pilates Style, and is a regular contributor to AOL, Vanity Fair Online, Clean Eating Magazine, Better Nutrition, and Total Health Magazine Online.