It wasn’t so long ago that strength training was reserved for athletes, and weight rooms were the domain of buff dudes flexing in front of the mirror. These days, weight rooms are full of grandmas, college kids, and middle-aged parents, all pumping dumbbells, hefting medicine balls, and working the Nautilus machines.

Strength training (also called resistance or weight training) works the muscles against gravity or some other form of resistance. It has a great reputation for toning you up and slimming you down, but the benefits go way beyond making you look good. Muscle is our largest metabolic organ, and anything that strengthens muscles has a positive effect on metabolic functions throughout the body. The benefits are so widespread that a regular program of strength training can actually reduce your risk of mortality from all causes. Though it isn’t rocket science, strength training should be done correctly (see sidebar.) You only have to do it two or three times a week to see benefits. Think you’re too old or weak? Research shows it’s never too late to start. Here’s what you have to gain:

Bone Strength We reach our peak bone mass around age 27, and thereafter lose about 1 percent of our bone mineral content per year. If we do nothing to combat the trend, we can end up with osteoporosis — serious bone loss that can lead to fractures, most commonly of the hip, femur, vertebrae, and forearm. Women are most prone to osteoporosis because they lose bone mass rapidly in the years following menopause.

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The good news is that bone is living tissue, and it responds to physical stress. When the muscles surrounding a bone contract, they exert force on the bone. The bone responds by laying down proteins in a matrix pattern between bone cells. Calcium phosphate then mineralizes this matrix, creating rigid bone. Though we can strengthen our bones at any age, the best time to start is young adulthood, when bones can handle a heavier load and the body is developing its peak bone mass. The more you sock away at this age, the more you’ll have by the time you’re a senior citizen. But research shows that even 70-year-olds can increase bone density in the femur and lumbar spine by doing twice-weekly resistance exercises.

Muscle Strength, Body Composition, and Weight Loss First, let’s dispel the myth that weight training will make you bulky. It won’t, otherwise Hollywood starlets wouldn’t do it. Weight training does increase lean muscle, but that’s exactly what we need to combat the annual 3 to 5 percent loss of muscle that starts in our 30s, accompanied by a parallel loss of strength. Lean, strong muscles can prevent injury, protect ligaments, and keep joints mobile and pain-free. And one of the greatest benefits of strength training is that your body can stay in a fat-burning state for many hours after a workout. As you lose body fat and create lean muscle, you’ll burn more calories, even at rest.

Seniors who strength train have so much to gain because strong muscles reduce the incidents of falls and fractures, and help the elderly maintain independence. Even frail nursing home residents improved their gait, stair-climbing ability, and quality of life after just 10 weeks of strength training.

Blood Sugar Control Strength training boosts the number of proteins that shuttle glucose out of the bloodstream and into the muscles. This results in more energy for the muscles and lower circulating levels of glucose. If blood levels of glucose stay chronically high, a person is at risk for developing diabetes and damaging the kidneys, circulatory system, and eyes.

Brain Boost When researchers at the University of British Columbia studied whether strength training could help seniors reduce their risk of falling, an unexpected benefit was discovered — the seniors began making more decisions, doing more planning, and taking on new tasks, all aspects of improved executive functioning skills in their brains. Many studies have echoed these findings, confirming that resistance training in older adults improves cognition, with particular gains in memory and memory-related tasks.

Better Sleep, Less Stress Sleep problems, stress, anxiety, and depression can often feed off each other in a vicious cycle, but a regular program of resistance training was shown in numerous well-designed studies to have a positive effect on each of these issues.

~ Are you an avid strength trainer with more tips? Comment on this column below.

Author

  • Linda Lindsay

    Linda Lindsay has been writing health articles for Moonshine Ink since 2003. She has a degree in natural resources from Colorado State University, and has worked for the Yosemite Institute, Outward Bound, the Park Service, and Forest Service. She came to Tahoe in 1984 to check it out for a winter and never left. She lives in the Prosser area with her husband, daughter, two dogs, and a cat.

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