When it comes to our health, we are bombarded with so much conflicting information, particularly when it comes to strength training. Strength training has been a way of life for me since I was in my late 20s (I am now 50). Other than some aging skin and a few more laugh lines, I look the same as I did 30 years ago—muscular and toned. I have given birth to four boys so my body has been “stretched,” but I am stronger today than I was at 30. In addition to presenting some of the scientific evidence, I want to share with you some of the wonderful benefits that I have experienced from strength training regularly most of my life.
1. Bone Density
One of the most talked-about reasons for strength training in women is the prevention of osteoporosis. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, bone loss usually speeds up for both men and women during midlife. For most women, bone loss increases after menopause when estrogen levels drop sharply. In fact, in the five to seven years after menopause, women lose up to 20 percent or more of their bone density. Women ages 65 to 70 who experience a fracture around the hip joint are five times more likely to die within a year than women of the same age that don’t experience a fracture around the hip joint.
“We lose so much muscle as we age that by the time we’re 70, we only have about 50 to 55 percent of our muscle mass left,” says Beatrice Edwards, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of medicine and director of the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “That explains why we feel weak and tired as we age, and we can prevent some of that with weight training.” Studies have shown that weight lifting can prevent bone loss and may even help build new bone. In one study, postmenopausal women who participated in a strength-training program for a year saw significant increases in their bone density of the spine and hip, two areas affected most by osteoporosis in older women. Developing a strength and balance/stability program, especially targeting the hips and core, can help prevent falls with these women. Wouldn’t it be great to watch these statistics crumble as we see more and more women building strength by incorporating weight training and offsetting the risk and onset of this disease?
Another benefit is aesthetics. Generally, we gain about 10 pounds of body weight every decade during midlife years. Most women try to counter this change through dieting. We all know that changing your diet without incorporating exercise doesn’t have a high success rate. About 25 percent of weight lost during calorie-restricted diets is actually muscle tissue, which is already in short supply in older women. Maintaining a strong frame gives women a sense of confidence—we walk a little taller and we feel a little better. Our clothes hang better and we are able to maintain our shape by weight lifting. Most women love clothes. To be older and still be able to buy clothing that makes our heart smile—well, this makes shopping and wearing them all the more fun!
3. Testosterone Levels
Participating in a strength program as we age also helps keep testosterone levels higher. Natural testosterone is great for the female body, and lifting some steel can even increase testosterone levels. Testosterone helps us build lean mass, and the more lean mass you have, the greater your body’s metabolic activity. You know what that means, don't you? Energy. Meaning calories burned. Think of a nice roaring fire that has had quality hardwood thrown on it. More lean mass is like dry Madrona wood—the fire blazes with it, unlike some green Douglas Fir. As we age, we can keep the metabolism firing by maintaining some muscles on our frame. Testosterone is our friend and strength training helps us with that.
There is a wonderful quote by George Bernard Shaw that I hold near and dear to my heart: “We don’t quit playing because we age, we age because we quit playing.”
Strength training enables us to maintain a level of strength, so we can continue to do the things we love. I am active with my teen boys. I train varsity water polo guys. I still like to hang upside down and scramble over rocks on an adventurous hike. These are all things I can still do because I challenge my strength with implements that will tax and push my abilities, that will help me grow mentally as well as physically.
Today, strength training is vital to my playfulness, shape, testosterone, bones and mood. But mostly, it plays an important role in my mental strength. As we age, life becomes more complicated. Finances, aging parents, growing children that make foolish choices, job changes, death, etc.—none of it is for the faint of heart. Training with weights develops an internal strength that other methods just seem to lack. There is something about picking up some steel, moving it around, pulling my body up and pressing it down, that resets an internal gauge. It tells me I am alive, I am moving, I am strong. The investment made with strength training pays off in so many ways.
Before you start any strength-training program, please consult a medical professional and find an educator or well-qualified trainer. I hope that you, too, will begin to enjoy the positive effects of strength training.