Remember those boxes of books you carried up the stairs so easily a few years ago? Or the jammed grocery bags you used to grab from your car's trunk two at a time?
Maybe these days you're packing less into storage cartons and shopping sacks, to make them lighter to lift, or enlisting a teenager's help in hauling them. As we get older, many of us find ourselves becoming less strong than we once were. That's to be expected in middle age and onward, especially if you're a woman—right?
It doesn't have to be so. Your healthy future depends upon keeping your muscles strong. Losing strength may result in serious health problems: fractures, imbalance, loss of mobility and inactivity—leading to diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Yet those risks can be turned around, and even prevented, with quick and simple strength training exercises.
"Strength training—as in lifting weights? I can't do that!" you may be thinking.
Don't worry. Even if you'd rather pump your own gas than pump iron, the exercises to help you stay strong are easy to do and won't leave you looking like a professional body-builder.
And the health payoffs are big. Just a few months of strength (also called resistance) training—at home, in a gym or fitness center—can lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, help you avoid osteoporosis, decrease arthritic symptoms and build muscle so you remain active and independent for years to come.
Losing muscle with age
Most women know that aging can weaken our bones. If left untreated, this condition (called osteopenia) can lead to osteoporosis. A related process—called sarcopenia—happens when our muscles and lean body mass begin to decline.
"The loss of muscle mass starts in your early 30s," says Michael J. Hewitt, Ph.D., research director for exercise science at Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tucson. "By the time a woman is in her mid-40s, she may have lost 6 to 7 percent of her muscle mass."
If that muscle isn't retained or rebuilt, you lose strength. You also lose metabolic rate, Hewitt adds, which causes you to gain weight. Eventually, as muscle mass declines further with each decade, everyday activities—such as rising from a chair, putting away the dishes, or getting out of the bathtub—may become too difficult to manage.
Many people believe such weakening is inevitable. "We have this idea that because we're older, we're not supposed to have the same level of function and that's really wrong," Hewitt says. Strength or resistance training—whether performed with handheld weights, exercise bands, or on more sophisticated machines—helps fight that muscle loss.
Benefits to heart
Strength training also helps your heart health, says Kevin R. Vincent, M.D., Ph.D., of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Vincent co-authored research showing that resistance exercise aided cardiovascular function by lowering levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that can cause harmful clots, increasing anti-oxidant defenses, and decreasing blood pressure.
"When people think of something heart-healthy, they commonly think of aerobic exercise, but strength training is a good adjunct," Vincent says. Exercising with resistance keeps your blood pressure response lower when you hurry to catch a bus, climb stairs, or lift a box. "That's protective," he adds, "so you run a smaller risk of having a heart attack or a stroke."
Even if you've never lifted a weight before, you can begin an easy strength training program. Indeed, women who are new to resistance exercise gain the most health benefits from such training.
"It's never too late to start," Vincent says. "Start with light weights and progress slowly." He advises spending two to three months using light weights and gradually getting used to the exercises. Check with your doctor beforehand, especially if you have a chronic medical condition or joint problems.
You don't have to join a gym to get stronger. Resistance exercises are easy to do at home with inexpensive handheld weights, available at discount stores and sporting-goods suppliers. You can also build strength effectively with lightweight elastic resistance bands.
Ten minutes, twice a week
For those of us who are perennially time-crunched (and who isn't?), Hewitt created the strength-building Key 3® program as a minimal approach to strength work. The three exercises in the plan—wall squat, chest press and single arm row—take only about 10 minutes, twice a week.
In that brief time, the three exercises work about 85 percent of the body's muscle mass. They can also stimulate bone growth, helping to curb osteopenia at the same time they're fighting sarcopenia. "The good news is, you're not even going to break a sweat doing these," Hewitt says. "You can do them in your bedroom, in your pajamas, if you want to."
So, kick off those bunny slippers and start building your muscle strength now:
Wall Squat: (When first beginning this exercise, don't use any weights for the first two weeks.)
- Stand with your back against a smooth wall. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and about a 1-1/2 to two of your foot lengths from the wall.
- Bend knees slightly; hang arms freely at sides, using holding light weights.
- Slowly slide your back down the wall until knees come close to a 90-degree angle, but do not exceed it.
- Then press upward, back still against wall, until legs are nearly straight.
Typically healthy adults will hold 10 to 25 lb in each hand (women) or 15 to 35 lb (men). Size of weights used will depend on one's body weight and strength level.
- Lie on back with bent knees, arms perpendicular to body.
- Hold hand weights (3 to 5 lb. to start) directly over elbows.
- Slowly press hands up, bringing weights together in a triangular motion.
- Lower weights slowly until elbows return to floor.
Single Arm Row:
- Place one hand and knee on bench or edge of chair, with other foot on floor.
- Keep back flat and parallel to floor.
- Hold hand weight (8 to 10 lb. to start) in free hand, hanging directly below shoulder.
- Raise weight slowly to just under shoulder. Keep elbow close to side.
- Lower slowly and repeat.
- Reverse position to work opposite side.
Rules of the game
When just starting out, aim to do one set of eight to 12 repetitions (called reps) of each exercise. With strength training, you work to a level of fatigue at the end of each set. If you can only do six reps, you may need a lighter weight. If you easily reach 13 reps, it is time to use a heavier weight.
As you become accustomed to the exercises, build to doing two sets of each exercise, twice a week. With proficiency, you'll still be able to complete a session in about 10 minutes. You may even add a third session during the week, but allow at least a day's rest between them.
For strength training to be effective, Hewitt says, you need to do it regularly, with no more than three days between sessions or the benefits begin to wear off. When traveling, he advises doing the exercises in a hotel room, using a laptop computer or briefcase. If they are too light, add the room's phone directory or Bible for additional weight.
"Strength work and exercise in general are kind of like investing," he says. "A little bit every week is far better than a lot once in a while."