Mention the idea of a strength training program, and some people are likely to think of images of muscular guys who spend hours in the gym, heaving weights and admiring themselves in the mirrors.
Perhaps due to those stereotypes, strength training might not seem like a good fit for the “average” person—but that notion couldn’t be more off the mark.
If you’ve convinced yourself that you ought to be more active and that regular exercise is good for you—perhaps through a walking or jogging program, or playing tennis or basketball regularly—be careful not to overlook the vast health benefits strength training can provide. And to take advantage of those benefits, you don’t have to spend long hours in the gym or strive to look like a muscle-bound bodybuilder.
“Strength or resistance training is very beneficial from multiple standpoints,” says Benjamin Mwanika, DO, of Sentara Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists in Harrisonburg. “It’s beneficial for overall health and for keeping good muscle tone—particularly in the older population. Having good muscle tone in the upper and lower extremities is vitally important for overall stability and balance with walking.”
Strength training is also great for improving the functional strength we need for tasks like getting groceries out of the car, picking up a child or grandchild, and carrying out many other daily activities.
“Strength training improves agility and helps prevent injuries in other parts of the body—particularly when you strengthen your core, which includes the muscles of the abdomen, lower back, pelvis and upper legs,” adds Matthew Panzarella, MD, of Sentara Martha Jefferson Orthopedics in Charlottesville. “Strengthening the core muscles is beneficial not just for athletes, but for anyone who wants to avoid injury. This kind of exercise is especially helpful as we age.”
Preventing Muscle Loss, Building Bone Strength
While it’s probably clear to most that weightlifting builds muscle, many may not realize the benefits muscle mass provides as people grow older.
“After about age 35 or so, people start losing muscle mass if they’re not doing anything to strengthen and build up those muscles,” explains Dr. Panzarella. “The muscles that you do use are going to remain strong, and the muscles that you target through strength training will actually get stronger.”
Strength training also helps to combat the weakening of bones that often occurs with aging. Putting a reasonable amount of stress on bones tends to make them stronger, Dr. Mwanika points out. This kind of beneficial stress includes both cardio and strength training, in both younger and older people, but strength training is especially good for healthy bones in older people.
“Even people in their 80s or 90s who do some light walking or light weightlifting are helping to build bone strength,” Dr. Mwanika says. “That’s important for people—particularly women—who are at risk for osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weaker and more brittle with age.”
Boosting Metabolism, Burning Calories
Strength training is also helpful for people who want to lower their body mass index (BMI), a measure of the amount of fat on the body. This kind of exercise boosts the body’s metabolism, leading to the burning of more calories, including energy stored in body fat.
“By building muscle, your body will burn more calories—even while resting—than it would burn otherwise,” says Dr. Panzarella. “So strength or weight training is an optimal way to help people lose fat.”
However, he notes, people engaged in strength training shouldn’t become too fixated on what the scale reads. In fact, while building muscle, one’s weight itself may not decrease that much, since muscle weighs more than fat tissue.
“You’re losing fat and burning excess calories, but you’re also building lean muscle mass,” explains Dr. Panzarella. “So don’t look so much at the number on the scale. Look instead at yourself in the mirror. After a certain amount of strength training, you’ll start to see yourself looking better, fitter and more toned.”
Providing Benefits for the Mind
Regular exercise, including strength training, produces mental health benefits as well. Part of the reason, according to Dr. Mwanika, is that exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, natural chemical substances that make people feel good. Through this release, in fact, strength training can actually serve as a mild antidepressant, improve sleep quality, boost self-esteem and improve one’s sense of well-being.
“Exercise helps your mind remain sharp and engaged, and research shows that exercise can actually delay or slow the presentation of dementia,” Dr. Mwanika says. “That’s true not only for weight training, but for cardio exercise, too.”
Deciding Where to Work Out
Many people looking to engage in strength training may decide to join a gym, but you don’t necessarily have to become a regular fixture at the gym or purchase a lot of weightlifting equipment to get the benefits of strength training.
“You can get a great workout by just using your own body weight,” says Dr. Panzarella.
For starters, he recommends exercises like pushups, pullups, squats and lunges. Resistance bands or straps and some light dumbbells provide additional strength training options.
“You can find a lot of ideas online—including YouTube videos and illustrated workout routines—for exercising with and without weights,” adds Dr. Panzarella. “A number of good books are also available both on weightlifting and on strength exercises you can do without weights.”
Because of the wide range of equipment they offer, however, gyms and fitness centers do offer many attractive features for people serious about strength training. Most gyms also offer instruction on how to exercise correctly, and many have training coaches to help clients meet their fitness goals.
“Gyms are a great option for those who can afford them, and many gyms are very reasonable in price,” says Dr. Mwanika. “But strength training does not have to be an expensive activity—using your own body weight as resistance and walking in your neighborhood are free of charge.”
Many fitness experts recommend a minimum of two days of strength training a week, with a day or two in between for rest and recuperation. Even with such modest time requirements, however, the biggest challenge most people face is staying motivated.
“One key to remaining motivated is doing exercises you enjoy and mixing up your workouts for the sake of variety,” advises Dr. Mwanika. “You don’t want to do something that feels like a task—something you dread doing.”
So if you enjoy cardio, by all means do cardio, he says. If lifting weights is your thing, do that. But when you start to feel unmotivated, switch and try something else. Cardio people might want to try lifting for a change, and weightlifting people might ease up for a couple of weeks and focus on cardio instead.
Switching up your normal workout routine also presents fresh challenges to the body, helping people avoid exercise “plateaus,” Dr. Panzarella notes. Plateaus occur when motivation—and often signs of progress—begin to wane.
“Our bodies get used to our exercise routines, and we start to get bored,” he says. “So it’s good to try new approaches, new routines and new ideas. And as you notice your fitness level and mental alertness improving, and your BMI decreasing—that can be a strong motivator to keep exercising and achieve even greater results.”
Avoiding That “Jacked-Up” Look
Some people, especially women, may be concerned that strength training is going to make them look like they belong on the cover of a muscle magazine. Not to worry, says Dr. Mwanika.
“You’re not going to stumble into that really muscular appearance by accident,” he says. “You’re not going to get that rugged, tough, military look unless you’re really going for that.”
Work within your limits—especially at the start of a new routine. It can be good to challenge your body, but don’t overdo it. Respect your body when it’s telling you that you’ve had enough.
Use correct form and gradually increase the level of intensity. Don’t try to impress anyone or lift more weight than you can safely handle, and ask for guidance if you’re unsure about weightlifting technique.
Breathe when you lift. Don’t hold your breath while doing any part of your strength training routine. Holding your breath can raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Older people thinking of starting an exercise regimen should check with their doctor first, especially if they have any medical or health problems.