Television commercials and advertisements use fit and healthy looking models, in running apparel, to sell you everything from cereal to shoes. People are led to believe running equates to being healthy and fit. Unfortunately, the importance of strength training is often overlooked. When was the last time you saw a healthy, fit, middle-aged woman doing a barbell squat, or pulling 150 pounds off the floor, doing a deadlift, in an ad or commerical? Those images are quite rare. However, these and other resistance training movements can have a dramatically positive effect on how we look, perform, and even in how our muscles age.
Training with Weights
Weight training has a certain stigma attached to it. During my years as a personal trainer, most of the women I spoke to initially felt training with weights was intended more for men — men who wanted to get big and bulky. Nothing could be further from the truth. Weight training involves more than simply grabbing five-pound dumbbells. In order to benefit from strength or resistance training, each workout should build on the prior workout. We’ll talk about designing a program and a process called periodization in a future article.
Benefits of Strength Training
Reduced risk of diabetes and prediabetes
Prediabetes is the beginning sign of a loss of blood sugar control. Type 2 diabetes may take years, even decades, to develop. Often, the difference between prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes is a small difference in fasting blood sugar measurements. Though regular exercise won’t make up for a diet full of poor quality, high-carb, processed food, it can certainly help. A new study revealed those who had more muscle mass displayed a reduced chance of having prediabetes.[i] Likewise, when blood-sugar control is lost, it’s more difficult for the body to burn fat —making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it.
Though Type 2 diabetes is occurring now in younger people than it has historically, it is still diagnosed most often in those who are in middle and later adulthood. It’s also common for people this age to be less active and have a lot less muscle mass than in their younger years. Making weight training a regular part of one’s lifestyle can help reduce age-related muscle loss.
Reduced rate of, or reversed, aging of muscle tissue
No matter what your age is today, if you’re not currently following a good resistance training program, you can get started and actually build younger muscles! Take a look in the mirror and flex your muscles. Are they still fairly tight and full, or are they becoming soft, stringy or skinny? For those who are sedentary, it’s common to lose size in the areas where we have the most muscle, and gain size in the areas where we best store fat. You have control over that. Weight training sets up a physiological process where your body will make new, younger acting muscle tissue.[ii] It’s never too late to start.
Better maintenance of lost weight
People lose weight all the time. Unfortunately, most gain it back as well. Resistance training has been shown to play an important role in avoiding weight regain. Whether it’s directly a result of exercise itself, or because those who follow a regular resistance training program make other good lifestyle decisions as well is unclear. Nevertheless, a solid weight training program should play a foundational role in any weight loss program, as well as a weight maintenance program.[iii]
Sustained levels of testosterone with aging
A long-held belief is that testosterone levels fall as we age, especially in men. Research presented at The Endocrine Society’s annual meeting questions the theory.[iv] It suggests the fall in testosterone levels may be a result of a loss of muscle tissue as a result of having no regular strength training. It may also be a result of stress and other conditions, but training with weights is an easy way to help reduce the loss of testosterone with aging.
Squatting, lunging, lifting and pressing are movements we make every day, or at least we should be able to. Often, these basic movements are avoided in a fitness program for fear of injury. As we start to avoid them in everyday life, we become less functional. As we become less functional, we become less active. I’ve seen people in their 80s still doing squats with a bar on their shoulders, in perfect form. I’ve also seen people in their 40s who have a hard time doing a squat with just their body weight. Unless you have an injury, these movements should be done on a regular basis. If you do have an injury, don’t let it become an excuse to avoid them. Instead, speak with a fitness professional who can help you work around it.
Reduced risk of injury
Do you know someone who gained weight after an injury? Have you? There’s no doubt that a back surgery, knee replacement, or even a torn Achilles’ tendon can force someone off their feet for a while. A good strength training program (along with avoiding poor-quality food) should reduce the need for these injuries or surgeries. That said, if you were injured several years ago and are hanging on to the injury as a reason you can’t get back in shape, stop making excuses. While some injuries are enough to severely limit our movement, most injuries can be overcome. Get some help and get yourself back on the road to recovery.
There are a variety of other benefits of training with weights beyond what’s been mentioned here. The real point is, weight training is not an “optional” part of a fitness program. It should be a core part of your fitness regimen in any given week. Depending on your current level of conditioning and your goals, a weight training program design can vary quite a bit from one person to the next. In an upcoming article, we’ll look at what types of resistance training to do based on what your goals are.
If training with weights is not part of your program today, get started. If you’re not sure where to start, ask for help from a qualified fitness professional. Consultations should be complimentary at most fitness centers. Talk with an expert and get the guidance you need.
[i] The Endocrine Society. Increased muscle mass may lower risk of pre-diabetes: Study shows building muscle can lower person's risk of insulin resistance. ScienceDaily, 28 Jul. 2011. Web. 7 Aug. 2011.
[ii] Melov S, Tarnopolsky MA, Beckman K, Felkey K, Hubbard A. Resistance Exercise Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle. PLoS ONE 2007;2(5):e465. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000465
[iii] University of Missouri-Columbia. Putting on the pounds after weight loss? Hit the gym to maintain health gains. ScienceDaily, 23 Sep. 2010. Web. 7 Aug. 2011.
[iv] The Endocrince Society. Older age does not cause testosterone levels to decline in healthy men.EurekAlert! 7 Jun 2011. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-06/tes-oad060711.php
This post was co-authored by my handsome husband. Tom is the Director of Nutrition & Weight Management for Life Time Fitness and Life Time Weight Loss.