I was recently at an event for the International Women’s Forum. The women there were, for the most part, past 50. While talking with a small group of women at the event, the conversation turned to what we were doing or tried new lately. Two of the women excitedly told of their new venture into lifting weights. Not just any weights, but really heavy weights.
One of the women, who is quite petite and just not a very big person, proudly announced that she had lifted 250 lbs with her legs! Needless to say, we were all very impressed. We were even more impressed when she told us she had lost a full inch around each thigh in just two months, her osteoporosis was improving, and she was losing weight. I also might add that they were working with a personal trainer. Lifting weights that heavy would require constant supervision by a knowledgeable trainer. But would lifting heavy weights opposed to not so heavy make that big of a difference, we wondered? Turns out it does make a big difference.
Lifting heavy is important for women over 50 because their bodies are naturally losing muscle mass. The best way for them to save the muscle they do have and to build new lean muscle mass is to lift weight limits that challenge them. It’s that challenge that breaks down existing muscle and rebuilds it stronger.
Women, particularly older ones, tend to back away from lifting weights that challenge them because they are afraid of building bulk. While lifting heavier weight will increase your muscle mass, it will not Hulk you out. Instead, it will create tone throughout your body.
Remember, many women gain weight after menopause, too. Hormone changes that come with perimenopause and menopause affect the shape and distribution of body fat. Weight lifting tightens those areas that get loose. The more weight you lift, the toner your body will look and feel.
Lean muscle also means more efficient calorie burning. That’s something you will need as those same hormones start to slow down your metabolism. Additional muscle helps you burn calories even when you are doing nothing but lounging on the couch.
About one in four women will develop osteoporosis, a condition that can start as early as age 50 but is more common once around age 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As estrogen levels drop, your bones become weaker and more brittle.
Lifting builds bone mineral density. Why? In the 19th Century, surgeon Julius Wolff determined that bones rebuild themselves in response to heavy loads. This is one of many adaptive changes the human body makes to protect health and wellness.
For older women whose bones are weakening due to the hormonal changes that come with menopause. Lifting heavier weight works to counteract bone mineral loss, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Unfortunately, women over 50 who do not challenge their bones by lifting weights may show a reduction in bone density.
It seems like a reach to try to connect lifting weights and dementia, but that is exactly what researchers in Brazil just did in a study published in Nature Medicine. They determined that exercise in general releases irisin, a hormone able to help improve neuronal growth in the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
It’s not clear why some women develop diseases like Alzheimer’s but one of the current theories associates it with faulty brain signaling. Exercise might improve that defective functioning including critical strength training. Weight lifting for women stimulates rebuilding in the brain.
A movement like weight lifting also improves the blood flow to the brain, increasing the oxygen levels. Your brain has an amazing capacity to adjust in response to the environment and your personal health needs. Lifting just intensifies that process.
Reduced muscle mass can pull the shoulders forward and round the back, creating that hunched-over look that all women fear. There is more at risk than looking hunched, though. The bad posture that can come with aging for women limits the range of motion in the shoulders, causing lower back pain and making you stiff and inflexible.
Lifting at a weight that challenges muscles gives you a stronger core and enhances the strength to support the chest, shoulder and spinal column. In other words, makes you less likely to hunch. It will also open up the chest and improve back alignment so fewer aches.
A strong back can compensate for weaknesses in other areas of the body, too, like the knees, hips and shoulder joints. In a process known as kinetic chain, the body will look for weak areas and improve the muscle strength around them, as well. There has to be muscle there to work with, though. For women over the age of 50, that muscle is less likely to be strong enough unless they lift heavy.
Other tips for safe lifting include:
Real injuries like strains or sprains can set you back weeks in your training. This is especially true for older women who may not be as active as they once were in life. That sedentary nature puts you at risk, so listen to your body to avoid serious injury.
The American College of Sports Medicine suggests all adults do both cardio and strength training. They recommend weight training for 20 to 30 minutes two or three days a week. Start slow and build as you lift weights to avoid overexertion that puts you at risk for injury.
Women are really just getting started at age 50 – that is if they do it right. Staying active is a big part of the equation and that should include weight lifting of some kind.
Do not start any new exercise program, particularly lifting heavy weights, before consulting with your physician.
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