By Emma Mitchell •
Updated: 11 Nov 2023 • 12:18
Benefits of weightlifting. Credit: Image by Freepik
Ask people what perceptions they have of strength training and a significant number will assume it’s an activity for men, not women, and that it’s for people who want to sport bulging muscles. The truth, however, is strength training to maintain and develop muscles is a crucial exercise for health, fitness and well-being and has particular benefits for women.
Weight lifting has long had a bad reputation and has been seen as a bit of a niche activity only undertaken by men who want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Walk into most gyms and the picture is generally that a few men are in the free weights area whilst all the women are grinding away on aerobic machines such as treadmills, exercise bikes and ellipticals.
The conventional wisdom is that strength training isn’t for women because they’ll end up with big shoulders, neck and biceps and ‘looking like a man’. Much of this perception stems from the 1980s when aerobics really took off and a host of high-leg lycra-all-in-one-clad women like Jane Fonda extolled the virtue of moving fast and getting very sweaty.
Thankfully modern research has debunked the myths about strength training and it’s now considered by many governments as an absolutely essential activity for adults of all ages. In the United Kingdom, the Chief Medical Officer’s Physical Activity Guidelines recommends:
“Adults should do activities to develop or maintain strength in the major muscle groups. Muscle strengthening activities should be done at least two days a week, but any strengthening activity is better than none.”
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends:
“Physical activities to strengthen your muscles are recommended at least 2 days a week. Activities should work all the major muscle groups of your body—legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms. Muscle-strengthening activities should be done in addition to your aerobic activity.”
These recommendations are stressed to be for adults of all ages, including those with chronic conditions and disabilities. It is also worth saying that, if you do have a chronic condition or a disability, strength training is much easier to accomplish than aerobic exercise. Most research states that the ideal is strength training in addition to aerobic exercise, but most also suggest that if you had to only pick one, strength training should be it.
But why is it particularly important for women to take up strength training, whatever decade of their life they’re in? We have five reasons why and hopefully if weightlifting is something that you would never normally entertain, these may convince you to try it.
A significant number of women want to lose weight; however, not all weight is created equal. Many women count weight loss success simply by the number on a scale and their clothes size, however ‘thin’ doesn’t necessarily equate to healthy or fit.
Far more important than the number on the scale is what the number is comprised of; the phenomenon of ‘thin fat’ or ‘skinny fat’ is real and the US National Library of Medicine defines it as:
“Normal weight obesity or the thin fat phenotype is defined as the presence of an increased body fat percentage in an individual with normal body mass index.”
It’s absolutely possible to diet yourself down to a small clothes size, and look thin, but have lots of body fat, next to no muscle and be unhealthy and unfit.
The good news is that gaining muscle is an extremely effective tool for losing fat. One pound, or 0.45kg, of muscle, burns around 6 calories a day at rest whereas one pound/0.45kg of fat burns 2 calories a day so a very basic calculation is that the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn even at rest.
In addition, lifting weights creates changes at a cellular level. Research suggests that when you engage in resistance training your muscles are stressed through lifting, pulling and pushing exercises and the cells in them respond by releasing a substance that sends signals to fat cells to begin the fat-burning process.
There is also something called Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), otherwise known as the afterburn effect. During exercise, our muscles need more energy than they do when they’re resting and that energy comes from our muscle’s ability to break down fat and carbohydrates with the aid of oxygen.
During exercise, people breathe faster and their hearts work to pump as much oxygen, fat, and carbohydrates to the working muscles as possible. Once the exercise is over, the oxygen in our bodies is elevated and this helps to restore the muscles by continuing to break down fat and carbohydrate stores for a period of time. Some studies have shown that resistance training can lead to the afterburn effect or raised Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) for up to 38 hours after the exercise session whereas an aerobic session produces an afterburn effect lasting between an hour and 12 hours after exercise. The duration of this afterburn effect does come down to the type and intensity of exercise done.
Having more muscle also means that someone can work out harder and for longer which equates to more calories burned.
A woman’s metabolism starts slowing down after the age of 30, to the tune of 5 per cent a decade, with the undesirable result that fewer calories are needed to maintain the same weight than before leading to that often-heard lament “I eat the same as I’ve always done but it just seems to go to fat now!”
In summary, it’s clear that getting more muscle is the best tool for women who want to lose fat and boost their metabolism.
An increasing amount of research suggests that strength training may lower a woman’s risk of getting Type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health used data from nearly 36,000 women, who ranged in age from 47 to 98 in a 2016 study on whether doing muscle-strengthening exercise indicated a lot about a woman’s health.
They found that women who undertook any amount of strength training were more likely to have a lower body mass index and a healthier diet and less likely to be a current smoker than women who did no strength training.
More astonishingly they also found that women who did strength exercises had a Type 2 diabetes risk that was 30% lower and a cardiovascular disease risk 17% lower than those who did no strength training. This finding was even after the researchers controlled for other variables like age, diet and physical activity.
A 2019 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that people who did at least one hour of strength training per week had a 40 to 70 per cent lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to those who didn’t. Amazingly the results were independent of any aerobic exercise also undertaken.
The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK defines Osteoporosis as “a health condition that weakens bones, making them fragile and more likely to break.” It is well known that women lose bone density at the rate of 2-6.5 per cent a year for the first three to five years after menopause, making them far more vulnerable to Osteoporosis than men.
Between the age of 50 and 70 alone, there’s a 30 per cent decrease in overall strength. The Framingham Osteoporosis Study found that 40 per cent of women 55 to 64 years old, 45 per cent of women between 65 and 74, and 65 per cent of women between 75 and 84 could not lift 10 pounds (4.5kg). This is not good news because greater strength means greater bone density.
The NHS, like other health authorities around the world, highlight the importance of strength training to lessen the risk of Osteoporosis:
“Weight-bearing exercise and resistance exercise are particularly important for improving bone density and helping to prevent osteoporosis.”
These recommendations are backed up by research with one study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness that took 35 premenopausal women and divided them into one group that did high-intensity weightlifting 3 days a week and one group that did not for six months. The results found that the women who did weightlifting experienced an increase in lumbar Bone Mineral Density (BMD) of 1.03 per cent, whereas the women who did no weightlifting had a decrease in their lumbar bone density of 0.36 per cent. In other words, the women who lifted weights ended up with denser (stronger) spines.
Another study looked at the effect of a combination of resistance training, HRT and calcium supplements on postmenopausal women and found that bone density was increased by one to two per cent in the group, compared to one per cent in women who did the exercise but took no HRT and under one per cent for women who took HRT but didn’t do the exercise.
The bottom line is that if women want to lower the risk of brittle bones and Osteoporosis, they should take up weightlifting before they get to a menopausal age. The added bonus is that muscle protects joints, so gaining muscle increases balance and stability, resulting in fewer falls and all the joint-protecting muscle helps avoid injuries.
Whereas it seems obvious that an exercise that increases muscle and strength will help with issues caused by weakness, it isn’t so obvious that it would improve one’s mental health.
It is, however, known that exercise reduces the level of the stress hormone Cortisol which is responsible for producing feelings of anxiety and agitation and strength training is one of the best exercises for lowering Cortisol levels. One Australian study found that people who did three strength workouts a week (chest presses, lat pull-downs, and biceps curls) reported an 18 per cent drop in depression after just ten weeks.
In 2018 the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry did a meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials, covering over 1,800 participants, and found that people who performed resistance training showed a significant reduction in symptoms of depression.
Here we circle back to the concept of ‘skinny fat’ and the fact that it’s perfectly possible to be at a normal weight but with a higher-than-desirable body fat percentage. The harsh fact is that, far from looking mannish, a woman with muscle enjoys a far more defined physique than a slim woman with no muscle. Muscle adds tone to the body and if you take two women of the same scale weight, but one of them lifts weights, she’ll certainly be a smaller clothes size than her non-weight lifting counterpart. Why? Because muscle takes up less room than fat.
Women who take up weight lifting are usually amazed by how centimetres disappear off a waistline that no diet in decades has shifted. More amazingly, women of any age can achieve a toned look with weight-lifting, even if their starting position is at the obese end of the scale.
Take Monica Bousquet; this 61-year-old Brazillian rocks a physique that many of us have never had, even in our twenties.
#fitnessmotivation #vidafitness #motivacao #confereoshape #lifestyle
♬ Unstoppable – Sia
#fitnessmotivation #vidafitness #motivacao #confereoshape #lifestyle
♬ Unstoppable – Sia
If Monica isn’t awe-inspiring enough, check out Ernestine Shepherd and ponder what her age could possibly be. Another lady in her sixties perhaps? No, Ernestine is 87 and she’s strong, confident and still pumping iron.
Joan MacDonald is a fitness influencer followed by a horde of younger women and she’s 81 years old. Joan took up weightlifting in her seventies after being given a litany of warnings by her doctor, including the fact that she was morbidly obese.
It goes without saying that nobody should just amble off to their local gym and start randomly picking up heavy weights. That way lays madness and injury. When one lifts heavy weights, form is all important.
Luckily any gym with free weights or resistance machines will either have expert advice on hand or be able to put women in touch with a Personal Trainer who can construct a good strength training routine for beginners and walk through the correct way to carry out each exercise. There’s no need to retain a Personal Trainer beyond a few explanatory sessions unless you feel like it and, far from being an intimidating place, the weight room in a gym usually holds people who are happy to help and give advice. My personal experience is that, where the aerobic sections of a gym can feel rather judgemental and competitive, the weight section feels inclusive and supportive.
So what are you waiting for women? It’s never too late to start the best exercise you’ll ever do for your health and well-being.
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Emma landed in journalism after nearly 30 years as an executive in the Internet industry. She lives in Bédar and her interests include raising one eyebrow, reckless thinking and talking to people randomly. If you have a great human interest story you can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org
Bravo, bravo! What an excellent article, thank you.
People also underestimate the roll that a fat-free diet has in bone loss, and brittle bones. Many vitamins and minerals essential to bone health are not water soluble, but require fat to become bio-available. It’s all about balance and moderation.
My body fat is 25.9%, visceral fat – 4.5kg, muscle 69.6%, with obesity at -0.2%. I know all that, and more, due to my bio-metric bathroom scales, which cost less than €30 (Black Friday is around the corner, ladies!). With today’s technology, anyone can keep track of what is going on inside their bodies, and articles like these help to inform and encourage women to look after their bodies by being informed.
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