Resistance training has always been my jam. It started in the weight room in high school and has continued throughout my life. Today, circuit-based resistance workouts fill most days - creating energy and a release like nothing else.
But these workouts are about way more than how I feel now. They are a critical piece of maintaining my health as an aging woman. In fact, as I approach 50, it is the most important element of my fitness program and it should be yours too. Two big health challenges we face as women is lean muscle and bone density losses.
We start with less lean muscle mass than men and around age 30, our muscle density begins to decline. Estimates indicate we lose about 3% of our lean muscle each decade between ages 30 and 80. Our strength also declines, between the ages of 50-70, and with that day to day tasks become more strenuous. Both of these phenomena contribute to the “frail old lady” stereotype. While both men and women lose strength and muscle, there are unique physiological factors to our muscle loss.
Estrogen decreases our muscle “growing” ability and progesterone increases our muscle breakdown processes. That might sound like menopause could improve the situation, but as estrogen drops in menopause, our muscles respond less to eating protein and lifting weights. Read more about this in the book Roar by Stacy T. Sims, PhD (https://www.drstacysims.com/)
Aging is associated with bone density decreases as well. According to the National Osteoporosis foundation, 80% of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, are women. Osteoporosis is characterized by a decreased bone mass and an increased risk of fragility fractures.
Approximately one in two women over age 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis.
A woman’s risk of breaking a hip is equal to her combined risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.
Estrogen, protects bones. When it decreases sharply around menopause, bone loss can occur and the chance of developing osteoporosis increases.
Guess what! You can do something to prevent age-associated loss.
Scientific reviews of data, such as this one from Endocrinology and Metabolism, find that resistance training and moderate to high-intensity weight bearing activities produce mechanical loads on the muscles, which puts stress on our bones and that stimulates our bone-building cells and processes. In fact, that study reported that prolonged aerobic activities like running or cycling, non-weight bearing aerobic activity and even walking have little or no effect on the prevention of bone loss.
The same is true for maintaining lean muscle. We have to work the muscle to keep the muscle and cardio training alone won't do the job. Preventing muscle and bone loss is absolutely crucial to staying active and staying independent as we age. The most effective way to do that is through resistance training.
Resistance training's effectiveness is built upon two principles. First, is the Principle of Adaptation. In simple terms, this describes the amazing way our body will adjust or adapt its functional capabilities to meet our needs or respond to a stressor. I think one of the easiest ways to think about this principle is to think about getting a new physical job like say, a logger. When you start off, you’re going to be super inefficient, lacking power in your ax swing and sore. But with each day you go to work and ask your muscles to swing the ax, they get more efficient, your form gets better, you get stronger, more powerful and your body adapts to the task.
Resistance training works in exactly the same way. With each session the body more efficiently recruits the correct muscles to do the work. The more effectively it delivers oxygen to those muscles and the muscles grow and repair successfully. As described above, the muscles then put stress on the skeleton which gives the signal to make more bone. You keep the adaptive process going by introducing new, higher levels of stress. This could be heavier weights but it can also be more repetitions, additional sets, or tempo changes to name a few.
The Principle of Adaptation couples with the Principle of Specificity. It states that the body will adapt specifically to what we ask it to do. So, in our logger example we’ll only develop chopping muscles if we work the muscles involved in chopping. Want to strengthen your legs, you have to do exercises designed to engage the leg muscles.
Resistance training helps us keep our lean muscle and bone density, but those are not the only benefits. It has also been shown to improve all of the following: cardiovascular efficiency; hormone regulation; metabolism; and tensile strength of ligaments, tendons and joints. If you are an athlete or play hobby sports, resistance training improves coordination, endurance, power and strength. (That means a
better golf or pickleball game!)
Wondering how you can get started? Here are a few tips.
I recommend resistance training 2-4 times per week and starting with lighter weight, a slower tempo and 12-20 repetitions of individual exercises.
Proper form is crucial. Educate yourself on the proper way to do each exercise. A personal trainer is a great way to ensure you’re safely performing each move.
Don’t let the equipment get in your way. Yes, you can start with body weight and/or lower cost equipment such as resistance bands.
Variety is important. Overuse and overtraining occur from too much of a good thing. Look for more than one exercise for each muscle group.
Short on time? Consider circuit style training. A circuit is where you perform several strength exercises back to back with minimal rest, giving you cardiorespiratory (cardio) and strength training in one session. Studies have shown that this type of training was just as beneficial and traditional cardio.
"Strength should be an attribute of all humanity. It's not a gift that belongs solely to the male of the species."
Jan Todd, first woman to deadlift 400 pounds
As always, don't hesitate to reach out if you have questions or need help getting started. I am here for you.