I’m a big fan of building as much movement into your everyday life as possible, like walking instead of driving or having an active hobby like gardening. But a lot of my patients strive for a lean, toned look that can come with a regular aerobic exercise program, be it jogging or cycling/spinning or swimming or whatever. As long as you don’t overdo it and exhaust yourself on a regular basis, all well and good, especially for your cardiovascular system.
But what many people overlook, even people who are really into exercise, is the importance of strength training. It is absolutely vital for maintaining health and well-being, particularly as we push into middle-age and beyond. One thing that can get in the way for some people is the desire to avoid spending time in the gym pumping iron and flexing in the mirrors with a bunch of sweaty strangers, and I can’t blame them for wanting to steer clear. But the good news is there are many other ways to challenge your muscles, so here’s the topline on what you need to know about maintaining your physical strength and how to do it in a way that suits you:
The skinny on strength.
Sure, plenty of guys are drawn to gym weight rooms to develop impressive “trophy” muscles, but that’s not the kind of training I’m talking about. We’re talking strong, lean muscle development not the bulky, Arnold Schwarzenegger-in-the-70’s-look. (With much lower testosterone levels than men, women are in no danger of bulking up even if they wanted to). However, like Arnold who at 76 is literally still going strong, one big reason to show your muscles some extra love is because, without some special attention, they will begin to shrink and even disappear from our thirties on, a decline of about 10% of our lean muscles mass per decade. Your mission: to hang onto as much muscle as you can, so you can live and move well for as long as possible.
Your muscles matter – a lot.
You might ask, so are muscles really all that important? In a word ‘absolutely!’ They, along with our bones and connective tissue, help hold you up, keep you vertical, and allow you to navigate the physical world: to carry the groceries, or a squirming infant or simply to rise up from a chair without an arm assist. We do all these things less comfortably when our muscles shrink with age, just as we become more prone to problems like muscle strain and back pain. If you don’t notice a huge difference now, whether you push back against that decline with strength training or not, I can almost guarantee when you hit your senior years you will. Then the muscle loss picks up momentum — sarcopenia is the technical term — and if you haven’t maintained your muscle size and strength in your younger years, you’ll cross the line into frailty that much faster. One the greatest threats to our health in the elder years is a disabling fall, especially a hip fracture. Getting into a strength routine now will protect and preserve not only muscle strength but bone density, which in turn will significantly reduce the chances of falls or severe injury if you take a tumble.
Strength-training rewards include more strength, better tone – and better blood sugar control.
Sure, keeping it ‘right and tight’ with an organized muscle-building plan that includes pushing, pulling, lifting, moving heavy stuff that demands strength – ideally under the watchful eye of an expert trainer – strength training benefits go far deeper than just making you look good for bathing suit season. If fact, one of the most important but often overlooked benefits is blood sugar control. In case you needed a bit more motivation, if you’re on of the millions of folks looking down the barrel of metabolic syndrome (or may have crossed the line into obesity or diabetes), adding a program of weightlifting, resistance training can have a powerful positive impact on blood sugar.
And how does the blood sugar angle work?
Muscle cells are spread throughout your body and, as researchers are increasingly coming to appreciate, they play a huge role in regulating metabolism, in other words, how the body turns the food we eat into energy. When we increase the size and number of muscle fibers through strength (aka resistance) training, the muscle cells become more sensitive to the hormone insulin so the body doesn’t have to produce as much of it to get the blood sugar out of the blood and into the muscle.
The result? Low, healthy levels of both glucose and insulin, which translates to less fat around the belly, fewer cravings for sweet and starchy food, better sleep and an over-all more energetic feeling. Even better, after you move your body, whether it’s strength or endurance training, your cells stay more responsive to insulin for the next 16 or so hours.
Cutting edge research is even starting to see the body’s lean muscle mass more like a giant endocrine gland. When the muscles vigorously contract, they release mini-proteins called myokines into the bloodstream which directly sharpen up the efficiency of the energy-burning process. You couldn’t buy better protection against prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Don’t resist resistance exercise.
The key to strength training is resistance, that is, your muscles pushing against the resistance of something, whether that’s a stack of weights in a gym machine or your own body weight when you do a push-up. The force you exert stresses the muscles in a good way, maintaining not only the size of the muscle fibers but the number as well. Muscles are a classic “use ‘em or lose ‘em” proposition. The research shows that you can build up muscle size and strength at any age but once fibers disappear, because they weren’t being used, they don’t come back, and you’ll be weaker for it. So always think move it, don’t lose it, and fight the slide.
Pick an exercise, any exercise that works your muscles.
The great thing about strength training is that there are so many ways to do it. Any decent gym or health club offers a myriad of equipment choices to help you build up your major upper and lower body muscle groups. Probably too many. So, find a trainer who’s experienced working with the level you’re at, be you a 20-something athlete or middle-aged beginner, to teach you proper form and help avoid injury. If you prefer group settings, then try a few exercise classes that incorporate free weights or body weight work and keep trying/sampling different classes until you find a routine that works for you. Other ways to strength train?
- Invest in a set of hand and ankle weights and with, the help of good exercise video (they’re everywhere on-line), come up your own accessible routine.
- Simple body-weight exercises are hard to beat, and you can do them almost anywhere: push-ups (modified push-ups, knees touching the ground, are fine), squats, lunges, etc.
- Exercises that work on core strength and/or balance provide a health bonus – they’re essential for maintaining a confident walking gait and avoiding falls as we age. For example, one-legged body squats are excellent for balance, planks for core strength (sit-ups are inefficient and an invitation to muscle strain)
- And, of course, Pilates and the more strength-oriented forms of yoga fit this anti-aging prescription to a T.
When and how much?
You can do a dedicated strength work-out twice or three times a week, or incorporate shorter “exercise snacks” during the course of the day. Mix it up. For instance, if you find doing squats uncomfortable, substitute stair-climbing for lower-body stability, and you can throw in some ankle weights to increase the resistance. If you like the idea of getting stronger without having to think about it, invest in a weighted vest – no more than 10% of your body weight – and move through your day (probably at home) wearing it, to healthfully stress your postural muscles.
Muscling unwanted weight away
When we think about exercise to keep our weight under control, we typically think about endurance exercise — the long, slow calorie-burn. But strength training provides a complementary metabolic pay-off. While we might not burn that many calories in the course of shorter resistance work-out, by maintaining our lean muscle mass, we’re increasing our “resting metabolic rate,” the number of calories we burn just by being alive. At rest, muscle burns three times as many calories as fat. In other words, when we’re packing a healthy amount of muscle tissue, more of the more food we eat gets burned for energy, less gets stored as fat. In one Iowa State University study, women and men who reported doing strength work a couple of times a week were 20% less likely to become obese over the following six years.
Working your muscles may save your brain.
Although the research is preliminary, there’s a strong suggestion that building muscle is good for your brain. In one study, woman who lifted weights twice a week had less shrinkage in the white matter of their brains than woman who did no such exercise or, interestingly, only worked out once a week.
Support muscle mass with muscle-loving foods.
While your working on strength training, another way to keep things growing in a positive direction is with an adequate amount of protein. Though individual protein needs vary quite a bit by weight, activity level and gender, you can estimate your needs using this basic equation: Divide your body weight in half and subtract 10. The number you get will be the approximate number of protein grams you should eat daily. So, for example, if you weigh 180 lbs, half of that is 90, minus 10 = 80 grams of high-quality protein spread over the course of a day. (Note: Those with renal issues should check with their doctor to determine an appropriate daily protein intake for their specific needs.)
Among the everyday animal products that will help with muscle development: eggs, chicken breasts, beef and salmon. Just be sure to buy the majority of it from organic producers or farmers’ markets whenever possible to get the best quality protein you can afford. Keep in mind though, while animal products are helpful for building muscle, it’s not an excuse to eat steak three times a day. Instead, try to get the bulk of your daily protein from non-meat/plant sources – and be a bit kinder to the earth, its animals and your wallet to boot. Another plus for plant protein is that it’s less likely to trigger metabolic acidosis, a condition thought to accelerate age-related bone and muscle-mass loss (uh, no thanks – and pass the spinach, please).
Preserve your muscle, live longer
We don’t yet have all the answers why strength training and preserving muscles mass is so good for us, the proof is in the pudding – how long we live. In a study last year from the National Cancer Institute that tracked over 400,000 people for up to 18 years, people who did some strength training had an 11% lower risk of dying. ‘Nuff said.