Judy Smith of New York City works out at Uplift Fitness, a women’s-only gym where the classes focus on strength training just as much as calorie-blasting cardio, to boost her bone density while she tones her body. “The cardio is important, obviously, but strength is just as important,” she says. “All these studies say it’s important for bone density, it’s important when you age to make sure you have muscle mass, and you’re maintaining that muscle mass.” And when you add high-intensity cardio bursts to your strength-training plan, Uplift co-founder Helena Wolin reminds her clients, you really send your calorie burn through the roof.
If you ever shy away from strength training because you’re concerned about “bulking up,” don’t, says Joseph Ciccone, DPT, CSCS, associate director of ColumbiaDoctors Midtown Orthopaedics Sports Therapy in New York City. Women simply lack the testosterone needed to create bulky muscles, so strength training will just make your body long and lean. Here are more terrific reasons to add strength training to your weekly workout routine:
- It makes for stronger bones: As Smith says, lifting weights can help you build better bone as well as muscle. After menopause, women lose 1 to 2 percent of their bone mass each year. Researchers in Spain’s Canary Islands reviewed a number of studies on the effects of weight lifting and resistance training and concluded that even a relatively small amount can enhance bone density in women. They also found that resistance training has another benefit for women’s health: It can reduce their risk for fractures, which is a concern in postmenopausal women.
- It charges your metabolism: Resistance training can increase the rate at which you burn calories for fuel by at least 15 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, increasing your body’s muscle mass is the only true way to boost your metabolism, and burning calories is key to losing and maintaining a healthy weight.
- It reduces your type 2 diabetes risk: Here’s another reason to become best friends with dumbbells and weights: even a modest amount of resistance training can significantly reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, research done at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southern Denmark found. In the study, participants who lifted weights for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, reduced their risk for type 2 diabetes by more than a third. When they combined resistance training with aerobic exercise, their risk was lowered even more, to almost 60 percent less.
- It boosts brain power: As you age, lifting weights can maintain more than muscle mass: It also helps your brain. A study done at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute at the University of British Columbia found that older women who lifted weights twice a week for six months showed improvements in their ability to perform memory tasks. Researchers from Japan also found that older adults who performed a combination of aerobic, balance, and muscle strength training exercises for a year did better on memory tests than the group that didn’t.
- It’s good for heart health: When it comes to heart health, cardio workouts get all the attention — but resistance training matters, too. Researchers at Syracuse University found that resistance training improved blood flow to the limbs better than aerobic exercises in their male subjects. They also found that the cardiovascular benefits of resistance training lasted longer. Another study, this one from the University of Illinois and published in the Journal of Human Hypertension, found that just six weeks of weight training significantly improved the heart health among young blacks.
- It prevents falls: Older people who engaged in a regular balance and strength training routine reduced their risk for falling by nearly a third, researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia found. They also improved their ability to perform routine activities of daily living, such as shopping and dressing.
- It relieves stress: If you need more benefits of strength training before adding it to your fitness routine, here’s one that’s good for body and soul: Weight lifting can be a stress reliever. “I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have stress in their life,” Ciccone says. “Lifting weights helps reduce stress because it gives you an outlet.” Resistance training also helps your body maintain healthy levels of the stress hormone cortisol, he adds.
- It can help you stave off chronic disease: Another of the many benefits of strength training is that it can improve or sometimes reverse symptoms of chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. When researchers at the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland analyzed studies on this topic, they found strong evidence that resistance training is an effective countermeasure for pain, inflammation, muscle weakness, and fatigue.
- It can lessen pain: Would you lift weights as part of your fitness plan if you knew it would help you feel better at work? Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark found that resistance training helped reduce musculoskeletal pain in women with office jobs. The women who showed the most improvement performed 10 to 15 repetitions of resistance training exercises for 16 weeks and did exercises that gradually increased the stress placed on their bodies.