Why You (& All Women) Need to Lift Weights…Starting Today
If you’re like most women, you probably head to the gym for a power workout—completely avoiding the weight floor. Or maybe you have a pair of handheld weights that you do some arm exercises with…when you get the chance (but you’ve been doing the same moves with the same weight for as long as you can remember).
If this sounds like you, you’re missing out on the key benefits of weight training, say experts like Paula Burger, a personal trainer based in Ft. Lauderdale. “I can’t stress the importance enough of why women—particularly as we get older—should be weight training,” says Burger. “As a woman, your body wants to lose muscle mass every year—and you gain weight because of it.
Plus, your hormones are all over the place: your estrogen and testosterone [yes, even women have some] are dropping and you have to lift heavier weights, eat less, and work harder than ever to keep the weight off.”
But consistent weight training can shift the momentum—significantly. Studies conducted by Wayne Westcott, PhD, fitness research director with the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, back this up. Westcott found that strength training two to three times a week for just two months will help women gain nearly two pounds of muscle and lose 3.5 pounds of fat. Why? As the body increases muscle mass, our fat-burning furnace (metabolism) fires up, which means you burn more calories and fat—all day long—even when you’re sitting. This is key as we get older because our metabolism slows down with every passing year—the reason you’re eating the same foods as you did years ago but now you’re gaining weight, gradually.
Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, author of the national bestseller Strong Women Stay Young, is a staunch proponent of women lifting weights, based on research she’s done—and continues to do through her The StrongWomen Program, a women’s national community exercise and nutrition program. Nelson found that after a year of strength training twice per week, women not only had less fat and more muscle, they also increased strength and energy dramatically, improved balance and flexibility, and prevented or reversed bone loss.
Why weight training gets such impressive bone-building results: Cells called osteoblasts are critical to maintaining bone structure; when you do weight-bearing exercise, these osteoblasts lay down new bone tissue to strengthen the points where the bone is stressed.
Do regular strength training—and continually challenge yourself with heavier weights and more repetitions—and these osteoblasts continue to reinforce the bone, over and over again, reducing your risk of serious health problems like osteopenia, or low bone density; full-blown osteoporosis; and sarcopenia, or gradual loss of muscle mass. All can affect not only how you age but your quality of life, too (i.e. what’s the joy in living longer, if you’re bed bound with compound hip fractures and have little muscle strength to do daily activities?).
Kris Wilkes, 59, is a former federal prosecutor and former litigator and senior partner at an international law firm in San Diego who has experienced the body- and life-changing benefits of weight training first hand. “I was in a very demanding career, often working 16 to 18 hours a day,” explains Wilkes, who took up weight training almost 20 years ago. “I would leave work feeling exhausted. But I forced myself to exercise after work. It became a great stress reliever for me. I started to feel euphoric because I was taking care of my body—not just using my mind as I did at work.” (Exercise, both cardio and weight training, is a proven mood booster.)
But Wilkes found that while cardio did help reduce her stress, it didn’t re-shape her body as she had expected. “I’d see these girls coming out of Gold’s Gym with amazing bodies—something that we just weren’t achieving in the aerobics studio next door,” explains Wilkes, who credits that with inspiring her to get a trainer and start lifting weights. “Of all the things I’ve done over the years—yoga, Pilates, running, step classes, CrossFit—weight lifting is the one that has truly sculpted my body and changed it, for the better.” (Wilkes has become such a fan of weight lifting, she competes regularly in International Federation of Bodybuilding competitions.)
In the Gym
The scene at the World Gym in Ft. Lauderdale, where Wilkes now lives, is impressive—and to the lay exerciser, a bit intimidating. Awe-inspiring photos of bodies sculpted at the gym line the walls and top-of-the line exercise equipment fills the floor. But it’s the members themselves who draw the most stares: muscles rippling, super-fit women and men can be found pumping iron, plenty of it. Wilkes is one of them—and is right at home. “I do 60 to 90 minutes of weights followed by 30 to 40 minutes of cardio, typically the StepMill or interval running,” says Wilkes, who works out 5 to 6 days a week and is unquestionably in the best shape—and health—of her life.
But Wilkes doesn’t just lift some heavy weights and call it a day. She plans out her course of action—something a trainer taught her early on to sculpt her body and avoid injury—working different body parts on different days. “Some days I do chest, shoulders, and biceps, followed by a leg day, and then the next day, I’ll do back and triceps,” she says. “Then, on the last day, I’ll work my abs and calves. You really have to thoroughly train the areas you’re targeting to get results.” But a trainer is key, says Wilkes: “There are so many different things you can do at the gym to build muscle—and a trainer can help you figure everything out and come up with a plan.”
Ft-Lauderdale-based Burger agrees. “You have to get out of your comfort level to see results. When you’re 50 or older, you can’t just go and do some shoulder presses and curls with 5-pound weights. You’ve got to push yourself and build up to the next level. A trainer can help you do that. I have a 75-year-old client doing step-ups with 15-pound dumbbells; she didn’t start there. She had to work up to it, but she did—and she’s doing it—and she’s getting great results.”
“There’s a persistent myth about weight lifting and women,” explains Wilkes. “Women think that if they lift heavy weights, they’re going to bulk up and look like a guy.” That’s just not happening, she says. “As we get older and our hormone levels start to drop, women have to fight for every shred of muscle we put on. We have to work really hard for it. We’re just not physically capable of bulking up like a guy. Sure, I want to fill out sagging skin with muscle, but I also want to be able to wear a dress and not look like a football player.”
The Fountain of Youth?
For women 50+, hormones and an aging body aren’t their best friends—but weight training can turn things around, something that Maria Liza Eden Giammaria, M.D., MPH, a vein specialist—based in New York and Ft. Lauderdale—discovered firsthand. “My father was ill with cancer and I was traveling between North Carolina, where he was, and my offices. At one point, when I turned 50, I had an awakening,” she says. “I was exhausted, I wasn’t working out, I wasn’t eating healthy, and I wasn’t sleeping. I felt toxic. I needed to work on me—and because I was so busy, I had to maximize my time. I wanted to get the best results in as little time as possible.” Enter weight lifting. As Eden Giammaria got more toned, she started eating better, lost weight, felt better about herself—and had a better overall mood—and even started to feel more empowered at work. “I want to gracefully embrace the aging process,” she says, adding that weight training has helped her do this.
Fifty was also the magic number for San Diego-based Meg Kruse, a personal trainer who’s now 56. Like Wilkes, Kruse is a regular at bodybuilding competitions, but Kruse never initially believed she could ever get to that point. “A trainer came up to me one day right around the time I turned 50 and suggested that I take my weight training to the next level because I had a beautiful back,” says Kruse. “When she said that, a little voice in my head said ‘You can’t do that. You’re too old. You’ve got wrinkles. Your right boob hangs down.’ But that made me even more determined to do it.” As her muscles grew, so did her self-esteem. Says Kruse: “As a woman, when you get stronger, you get more confident. There’s no question.”
This boost in self-esteem is a common side effect of taking on a challenge like weight lifting—particularly as you get older, says Michele Kerulis, LCPC, director of Sport & Health Psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, in Chicago. “When you’re in your 50s and older, there are many body changes occurring that make seeing results in the gym extremely difficult,” explains Kerulis. “But that’s what makes setting, and achieving, goals like this that much more outstanding for women.”
“Having a goal to work toward keeps you young,” adds Carol Matthews, 68, a personal trainer in Ft. Lauderdale who regularly weight trains women 50+ (including women in their 80s and 90s, whom she trains in their nursing homes). And getting stronger is a goal, says Matthews, which should be on every woman’s fitness bucket list. “Every single woman should lift weights,” she says. “You’re never too old to start.” But Matthews also stresses the importance of balancing out the rest of your life, too: “Eat clean and healthy—and prep your food for the day so you have things with you—get plenty of rest, and get out there and do cardio, even if it’s walking. These all work together to help you live a strong, healthy, long life.” Kruse agrees, saying: “You need to feed your body fuel: good healthy protein [like lean meats, fish, eggs, and beans], vegetables, and healthy carbs.”
So weight training—along with living a healthy, balanced life—makes you stronger, boosts your health, and wards off disease. But there’s also a tiny bit of vanity that comes from being able to wear sleeveless dresses with ease and a boost of confidence that comes from being able to heft your own shopping bags or your suitcase, or even your grandkids, sans help. All are what keep growing numbers of women, like Wilkes and Kruse, committed to strength training. “So we’re getting older?” says Kruse. “Women who strength train are not going to break their hips and they’re not going to ride up the stairs in one of those trolley things. And we’re not going to head to the grave with a muffin top. I like to call what we’re doing aging gracefully—and actively.”
Looking to boost your strength and improve your health with weight training? Consistency is key. Start with a trainer (all gyms have them, or try a personal training center that can work with you—and your goals). Or gradually work your way up to a trainer with these easy strength training tips*:
√ Put on a walking vest. These adjustable weighted vests can be worn daily to transform your daily walks into strength-training ones.
√ Do body weight exercises. Push-ups are the easiest exercises to do. You need no equipment and can do them anywhere. Other good options include squats (for your legs) and crunches (for your abs).
√ Try resistance tubing. These stretchy, lightweight pieces of latex provide resistance (and strength training) when stretched. (Tip: the lighter the color of the tubing, the less resistance it offers.)
√ Do free weights (or use weight machines). Dumbbells are effective strength training tools. You can do everything from biceps curls (to strengthen the arms) and shoulder raises (to strengthen the shoulders) to weighted squats (to help boost muscle—and bone—in the legs). Weight machines at the gym are a more advanced way to build bone; a trainer can show you step-by-step how to use them.
Do 5 to 10 minutes of cardio before strength training (this warms up the muscle, helping to prevent injury). Then choose a weight or resistance level that will tire your muscles after 12 repetitions. (When you can do more than 15 reps without tiring, increase the amount of weight or resistance.) Plan to do two to three, 20- to 30-minute sessions a week, alternating days that you work on different body parts.
* Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen so you don’t get hurt.