So much emphasis has been placed on aerobic fitness conditioning in the last 30 years that resistance training has gotten short shrift -- until recently. Fitness experts agree that whether you use resistance bands, free weights or weight machines, the result is the same: better health. Unfortunately, the myths still abound and are taken as gospel: weight training makes you inflexible. You’ll gain weight. The muscles will push the fat outward making you look fatter. If you stop weight training, the muscle will turn into fat. All untrue, and even better, the benefits go far beyond what the average person knows.
Five changes occur as we age: oxygen capacity declines; body fat increases; muscles atrophy; muscle strength degenerates; and bone mass dwindles. Strength training can reverse, or prevent, the five fundamental changes. That’s right – working with weights is a veritable fountain of youth. Let’s look at each of the five and how strength training counteracts each.
How in the world can lifting weights have anything to do with oxygen capacity? Isn’t oxygen capacity the domain of aerobic exercise? Not completely. In reality, the more muscle mass you have, the more efficiently your body utilizes oxygen. For example, a group of runners who took a 10-week weight-training program mixed in with their regular running ran more efficiently, running the same pace using less oxygen. And while their body composition didn’t change, they gained nearly 25 percent in upper body strength and nearly 35 percent in lower body strength.
We all know about body fat increasing as we age. Why is it so hard to lose weight after 40? This is related to the fact that muscles begin to atrophy, setting off a domino effect of physical decline: the less muscle mass, the slower the metabolism; the slower the metabolism, the more body fat gained; the more body fat gained, the slower the metabolism; and on and on it goes. How to stop this vicious circle? Weight training, of course.
To explain how gaining muscle mass increases metabolism: Muscle is an active tissue. Muscle cells are busy producing energy all day long, while fat cells burn a tiny amount of energy to maintain themselves. Each pound of muscle in your body burns 35 calories a day just staying alive. Each pound of fat? Four calories. In other words, more muscle allows you to burn more calories on a daily basis, even in your sleep. Studies show that in just three months, a person strength-training twice a week for 25 minutes can gain three pounds of muscle and lose four pounds of fat. This change in body composition also allows the body to burn 15 percent more calories.
An added bonus: strength training also decreases the amount of bad cholesterol (LDL) in the bloodstream and increases the amount of good cholesterol (HDL). Coupled with the loss of fat that comes with consistent weight training, your heart becomes stronger and more efficient (remember that it’s a muscle too!)
Now, why should we care if muscle strength degenerates? Few of us will be trying out for the Olympic weight lifting team or have to wrestle alligators for a living. What difference does it make? In addition from being able to open jars and carry your own groceries, plenty. When muscle strength degenerates, energy goes along with it. You’ll be more likely to sit around. It becomes harder to sleep even though you’re more tired. Depression may set in. The old saying “use it or lose it” says it all, because having muscle strength allows you to do the things you enjoy farther down the road. Fortunately, it’s never too late to start weight training. Seniors well into their 80s who have all but lost the ability to even walk without assistance are able to get rid of the walker and enjoy a high quality of life after strength training.
What about decreased bone mass? Osteoporosis has gotten a lot of press in recent years with lots of emphasis on calcium and hormone therapy. But working with weights increases bone density too. This happens because of a process called bone modeling, which means that the bones “grows” when overload strain is placed on it, much the same way muscles enlarge when overload strain is applied. In addition, weight lifting also increases strength in tendons and ligaments, which stabilize joints. Seniors who weight train also have better balance and more flexibility, which translates into fewer falls and bone breaks.
The American College of Sports Medicine exercise guidelines include eight to ten different exercises for the major muscle groups: legs, trunk, shoulders and arms, performed at least twice a week, using enough resistance to bring you close to muscle fatigue. There are many books and video tapes to introduce strength training into your routine, or you can join a gym or hire a personal trainer. Whatever route you choose, strength training is an essential part of optimum health – now and into your golden years.