The importance of muscle mass in fitness gets little attention, perhaps because there’s no pill to make us strong. If only eating spinach turned us all into Popeye! Olive Oyl definitely needed a spinach boost, too. Because women naturally have lower muscle mass, live longer, and muscle tends to fade with age, we’re at greater risk of becoming dangerously frail.
The good news: middle-aged women as well as men can build strength and improve their balance in only two 15 to 20-minute sessions a week (Holviala et al., 2012). Women can also use the same exercises as men (yes, barbells) and men can benefit from those killer core-building Pilates classes.
Grip strength predicts heart health
Doctors are increasingly paying attention to grip strength, an indicator of overall strength that can be measured in a medical exam room (much more easily than getting the patient to bench press!).
Grip strength may beat even blood pressure as a sign of cardiovascular risk, according to a study of nearly 140,000 adults in 17 countries (Yusuf et al., 2020). Drops in grip strength predicted a higher risk of dying of heart disease or of any other cause. It also predicted the chance of a stroke or heart attack. The researchers followed each participant, on average, for four years.
In separate research with data for more than 12,500 people, an hour of strength training a week lowered the risk of heart attack or stroke by 40 percent or more (Liu et al., 2019).
Strength protects your bones
Our bones weaken by about one percent a year after age 40 (Harvard Healthbeat, 2020). Strength-training improves balance, so you’re less likely to fall; and if you do, your bones should be stronger and less likely to break.
Older people dread falls for good reason: they can cost you your independence. Six out of 10 people who break a hip never fully recover (Harvard Healthbeat, 2020). Weight-bearing aerobics like walking or running help, but you also need to target bones like your wrists that are likely to fracture. Moves like squats and lunges strengthen your joints.
Strength can minimize pain
If you have arthritis, your physical therapist may have asked you to use weights to strengthen the muscles around certain joints (Arthritis Foundation, 2020). Ask about an overall workout. Strength-training focused on the core may also prevent or address back pain.
Strength can improve your blood sugar
Both resistance training and aerobics help bring blood sugar under control (Pesta et al., 2017). There is some debate about whether the diabetes drug Metformin interferes with the positive effects (Lowe, 2019). Check with your doctor if you are taking Metformin and want to start strength training.
Strength improves your mood
In a meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials, scientists found that resistance training helped cut symptoms of depression (Gordon et al., 2018). This might be the result of a change in brain biochemistry, but increased mastery over daily life can’t be counted out. Feeling stronger ideally will encourage you to build outdoor and active recreation into your life. If you could hike up a mountain, deliver a strong serve playing tennis with your husband or easily run around after the grandkids, wouldn’t you feel better? The key to building confidence is seeing improvements rather than decline.
Eating for muscle mass
Eating protein won’t help you build muscle if you don’t work out. But if you do, the muscle will come! (Pasiakos et al., 2015). Fish is a lean, nutrient-packed protein, and a staple of bodybuilders. Aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein at every meal, and fish at least twice a week.
Don’t I need a gym?
In these pandemic times, a gym may seem scary, but sorry, waiting for a vaccine isn’t the right move. Start now by taking video classes or working out at home or in a park. You’ve never had so many choices online!
And no, you don’t need weights. Stretchy “resistance bands” are cheaper and safer, and even those aren’t necessary to start, as some of the most effective resistance training uses bodyweight alone. Begin with a “full-body” or “total body” routine, two to three times per week, resting for at least a day in-between. Try squats, push-ups, planks, tricep dips between a couple of chairs, crunches, and lunges. The New York Times’ 9-Minute Strength Workout will give you an idea. YouTube has endless videos. On Instagram, I favor an upbeat lady in Iowa, Eliza High, see living.like.liza.
If you do move on to weights, consider a couple of sessions with a trainer to learn proper form. Adjustable dumbbells get heavier or lighter at the turn of a dial (sounds like magic but it’s a simple mechanism; Google “adjustable dumbbell video.”) Household objects like bricks or heavy cans of food will work, too, but check the videos online.
As someone who has sat at home before my computer for hours every day for a decade (the coronavirus forced millions to live like us writers), I get back pain when I stop doing Pilates. It’s a series of floor and standing moves developed by German-born Joseph Pilates during his stay in a British internment camp during World War 1. In the 1920s, he came to New York City and began helping professional dancers. Where I live, my Pilates class is full of women in their 70s, and some of them can bike 100 miles. Now they run through the sequence by video, led by ever-charming Jeanette…and many never miss a session.
Developing a Well-Rounded Workout: Arthritis Foundation. Developing a Well-Rounded Workout | Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/physical-activity/getting-started/developing-a-well-rounded-workout. Accessed October 20, 2020.
Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, Meyer JD, Lyons M, Herring MP. Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Psychiatry. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29800984/ Published June 1, 2018.
Healthbeat. Strength training builds more than muscles. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/strength-training-builds-more-than-muscles. Accessed October 19, 2020.
Holviala J, Häkkinen A, Alen M, Sallinen J, Kraemer W, Häkkinen K. Effects of prolonged and maintenance strength training on force production, walking, and balance in aging women and men. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01470.x. Published April 29, 2012.
High E. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/B_LcceQj9lH/. Accessed October 20, 2020.
Liu Y, Lee DC, Li Y, Zhu W, Zhang R, Sui X, Lavie CJ, Blair SN. Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality. Med Sci Sports Exerc. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30376511/ Published March, 2019.
Lowe D. Metformin and Exercise. In the Pipeline. https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2019/06/24/metformin-and-exercise. Published June 24, 2019.
Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review. Sports Med. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25169440/ Published January, 2015.
Pesta DH, Goncalves RLS, Madiraju AK, Strasser B, Sparks LM. Resistance training to improve type 2 diabetes: working toward a prescription for the future. Nutr Metab (Lond). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28270856/ Published March 2, 2017.
The 9-Minute Strength Workout. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/strength-training-plyometrics. Accessed October 20, 2020.
Yusuf S, Joseph P, Rangarajan S, et al. Modifiable risk factors, cardiovascular disease, and mortality in 155 722 individuals from 21 high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31492503/ Published March 7, 2020.