Want to lose weight, feel stronger, healthier, and more vibrant? Pick up a dumbbell! While strength training is a good addition to anyone's fitness routine, recent studies show that lifting weights may have special health benefits for women. And that's particularly true for older women. Among its many benefits, strength training:
• Boosts bone mineral density. Two recent Norwegian studies show that that resistance training using body weight (squats) not only optimizes peak bone mass in younger women, it also stimulates bone formation in those with osteoporosis and osteopenia.
• Reduces the risk factors for heart disease. Scientists at Appalachian State University have confirmed that resistance training can enhance blood flow while reducing blood pressure by as much as 20 percent.
• Lowers the risk of diabetes. Research in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness reported that lifting weights prevented inflammation and blood sugar spikes in a group of overweight postmenopausal women who engaged in weight lifting three times per week.
• Lifting weights makes you smarter. Canadian researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, found that women in their 60s and 70s who engaged in strength training once or twice a week improved the executive cognitive function 10.9 percent and 12.6 percent respectively. Executive function in those women that only engaged in balance and tone exercises (think yoga or stretching) actually deteriorated by 0.5 percent.
• Helps thwart low back pain. Core-strengthening resistance exercises (planks, crunches, etc.) help to prevent and relieve low back pain, according to a recent trial at the William Beaumont Health Center in Royal Oak, Michigan.
• Enhances joint flexibility and range of motion. When elderly women took part in either low volume weight training (one set of several exercises) or high volume (three sets) weigh training twice a week for 13 weeks, Brazilian researchers found that both groups experienced a significant increase in muscle quality as well as range of motion in the knee and elbow.
• Prevents frailty and the loss of muscle mass. Even very low-intensity resistance training done slowly has been found to boost muscle size and strength in healthy senior citizens. Practiced twice a week, scientists at the University of Tokyo noted that even low intensity weight lifting can help prevent sarcopenia - the gradual loss of muscle mass common in the elderly.
It's ideal if you can work with a trainer who will instruct you on proper form and help you find the right weight for your fitness level. If you are taking a strength-training class or setting up a program on your own, it's important to always warm up by doing five or ten minutes of light cardio. Once you begin, lift and lower your weights slowly. Don't use momentum—if you have to swing to get the weight up, chances are you're using too much weight. And remember to engage your abs and breathe. Finally, make sure you give your muscles time to recover. Give specific muscle groups at least one full day to recuperate before exercising them again. Also be careful to listen to your body.
Although mild muscle soreness is normal, sharp pain and sore or swollen joints are signs that you've overdone it.