By JANE E. BRODY
Although petite, I have always been a strong person — physically strong, with visible muscles. So why, I thought smugly, would I need to do strength-training exercises?Well, a few weeks ago I learned otherwise, and if you are a woman approaching 50 or beyond, you could do yourself a huge favor by reading the rest of this column and putting some of the lessons I have learned into practice.Even those of you who faithfully do aerobic activities may heed what follows because there is more to you than just a heart and lungs, and aerobic activities simply do not build all the muscles you need to stay in tip-top shape as you get older.
How I Got Started
The unrelenting progress of arthritis in my left knee had suddenly made walking difficult and tennis out of the question. Dr. Brian Halpern, an orthopedist specializing in sports medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery, did a simple test. Having me raise one leg in various positions, he pressed down on it and asked me to resist his pressure.No problem with the right leg, but the left dropped like a dead herring from every position. After years of favoring that leg, I had lost whatever muscle strength I once had. Before I could even think of resuming my previous activities, I had to build up strength in that leg.Then I wondered, where else might I need a muscular tuneup? I picked up a new book for women, “The Fitness Factor” (Lyons Press, $24.95) by Dr. Lisa Callahan, medical director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the same hospital, and turned to the chapter on strength training.
It began with an inspiring message: “Strength training, also called resistance or weight training, is beneficial for every woman, no matter what her age or fitness level. Weight training generally leads to a smaller, tighter physique. More important, weight training is an almost magical way to achieve many of your health goals.
“Recent research has shown that weight training can be good for the cardiovascular system, can improve or prevent osteoporosis, can reduce the chance of developing diabetes and can elevate mood. It also appears to improve balance, reducing the risk of bone-breaking falls.” And if that is not enough to persuade you to start a muscle-building program, hear this: Weight training can help women — and men — lose unwanted pounds and inches and prevent the gradual accumulation of body fat that otherwise accompanies aging. Dr. Callahan reminds her readers that loss of muscle mass typically begins in one’s 30’s or 40’s and continues, even for women who take hormone replacement. As muscles shrink, fat takes their place, and that process leads to a slowdown in metabolism and weight gain even if caloric intake and expenditure remain the same.
Weight training can reverse this process, putting back muscle (which uses more calories and takes up less room than fat) and diminishing fat stores. So even if you lose no pounds, by strengthening your muscles you can lose inches and sizes. Dr. Callahan credits the “groundbreaking research” done by Dr. Miriam Nelson, author of “Strong Women Stay Young” (Bantam, $11.95) and her colleagues at Tufts University. So I went straight to the source and consulted that best seller, which has been testing the strength of my book shelf for four years.
Studies by Dr. Nelson, who holds a doctorate in nutrition and is also a sports medicine specialist, and others she cites have shown unequivocally that strength training is a fountain of youth, capable of turning back the clock even for women in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In one of Dr. Nelson’s first studies involving 40 postmenopausal women who were healthy but sedentary, after one year the 20 women assigned to lift weights twice a week ended up with bodies 15 to 20 years more youthful than they were at the start. The group that remained sedentary aged further. The muscle-builders looked trimmer and “felt happier, more energetic, more self-confident,” Dr. Nelson reported. They also became more active as they got stronger, including a 68-year-old woman who was then able to move four tons of top soil with a shovel and wheelbarrow.
Are you beginning to notice that you now tire more easily during a brisk walk, that your briefcase or grocery bags seem heavier, that you need to rest in the middle of a museum visit, that it is becoming more difficult to get in and out of a car or stand up from a low chair? All this and much more can be remedied by a strength-training program. Furthermore, it will not take a year before you can see the progress you are making. In just four weeks of two 40-minute sessions a week, Dr. Nelson promises, you will see a distinct improvement in your strength and well-being. Within two months, the women in Dr. Nelson’s studies typically doubled the amount of weight they could lift.
Adopting a Program
You do not have to invest in expensive equipment or join a fancy gym to do strength training. There are many approaches, among them exercising at home with a book or video guide using hand and leg weights that cost less than $150 (even less used or if you share them with a friend), or you can work out in a class or gym with free weights or weight-training machines, with or without a personal trainer or instructor.
Four things are important:
Use the correct form and the right amount of weight for your current level of strength.
Start slowly and gradually increase the weights you use as your strength increases.
Limit yourself to two or three sessions a week, allowing a day or two between workouts for your muscles to recover. In that time, they gradually become stronger.
Do not abandon your aerobic activities. The two kinds of activities are complementary in keeping you hale and hearty.
You may have encountered programs using one-pound or two-pound free weights and suggesting many repetitions.Dr. Nelson says puny weights give you puny results. Her guide: start with the heaviest weight you can lift eight times in succession without sacrificing good form. Then as you get stronger, you can increase the poundage a little at a time, always using the eight lifts in a row as your guide. If it is more convenient for you, you can divide your day’s strength training into two or three sessions, say, by working the upper body in the morning and the lower body in the evening. Or if you would rather finish things all at once, you can do strength training before or after your aerobic workout.
For detailed guidance on putting together a personalized strengthening program, consult Dr. Nelson’s “Strong Women Stay Young,” written with Dr. Sarah Wernick. Don’t worry about turning into an Amazon woman. Women who become bodybuilders work out for hours a day using much heavier weights. Some also take hormones and steroids to increase their muscle mass. What you can become, however, is a woman who is more svelte and energetic and better able to meet whatever physical challenges life may throw in your path, including having to carry a 30-pound grandchild up three flights of stairs.