-by Monica Aalbers, PT
Put down the phone or the remote – and pick up the weights! Today’s Live Healthy article will focus on the benefits of strength training. As physical therapists, my colleagues and I promote movement and strengthening on a daily basis not only for recovery but as a preventative health measure. Research has proven exercise to be one of the most powerful medicines for both our mental and physical health, yet it is frequently underutilized. As a movement specialist who has spent 20+ years of my life studying (and witnessing) the benefits of exercise, I feel compelled to bring more awareness to the subject. I am convinced that if more people truly understood the value of exercise, there would be less excuses and more action. Let’s learn!
Strength training is a key component of an exercise routine, yet often people unfortunately overlook it or even avoid it. I have heard all the excuses (and have even used some of them myself). I don’t have time. It’s too hard. I don’t know how. I might get hurt. I don’t want to get bulky. I don’t have access to a gym. It’s too late to start. Maybe you can relate to a few of these? Well that’s good… because the first step in starting an exercise routine is first identifying your barriers and then overcoming them. The process starts mentally before physically. You must have a deep enough why that compels you into action even when you don’t feel like it. You need to be mentally strong to become physically strong.
Strength training has many benefits. Let’s dive into a few of them!
- Keep on Keeping on! One of the most obvious benefits of having strong muscles is improved ability to do normal daily tasks for the duration of your life – get out of chair, go up and down steps, move or lift household items, perform job related tasks, pick up your children or grandchildren, push the mower, till the garden, the list goes on and on. Aging is a guarantee in life; one of the effects of aging over time is that our bodies gradually become weaker. Although we cannot stop the aging process, we CAN control the rate at which the aging process happens. We can slow the effects of aging by keeping our bodies strong. The old adage “use or lose it” definitely applies to our physical strength.
- Improve your heart health. Your heart is a muscle. It can be strengthened; it responds to training. When your heart is strong, it can pump your blood volume throughout your body using less beats per minute; this makes your heart more efficient. A recent study in the journal “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” showed that weight training may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Burn more calories at rest. Everyone has their own resting metabolic rate. This simply means that your body will burn a certain amount of calories at rest for normal body processes like digestion, breathing, etc. By replacing fat with more muscle mass, you will naturally burn more calories at rest. Here is a hypothetical example; Sarah sits at her desk for 1 hour and burns 50 calories. She starts a weight training program. 8 weeks later sitting in that same desk for 1 hour, she will automatically burn more calories just by having more muscle. So not only do you burn calories while lifting weights, you take advantage of burning more calories at rest. This ultimately helps with losing weight and maintaining healthy weight.
- Stronger bones and tendons. As we age, our bones can become weaker and more brittle (osteoporosis). Research has proven that loading our bones and tendons actually strengthens them. When we place an appropriate amount of stress or loading on our bones, they respond by producing more bone through a phenomenon called “wolff’s law”. The same concept applies to our tendons; loading them through strength training actually causes them to be stronger and healthier, not weaker.
- Gaining confidence. It feels good to accomplish hard things! It is empowering to try something challenging and succeed. Not only does lifting weights increase your mental confidence, it can increase your physical confidence too. People with strong bodies are less likely to become injured or experience falls. Seeing success in the weight room can give you confidence in other areas of your life.
Now that you have mentally overcome your barrier(s) to strength training and have learned the benefits of strength training, it’s time to get into action. Here are several pieces of advice from our movement specialist team to help you start safely and continue indefinitely.
- Find an accountability partner. Exercising with someone is more enjoyable. You are less likely to back out if you know someone is expecting you. Plus, it is always beneficial to have an encourager by your side as you engage in a new or challenging activity.
- Start low and slow. Start with low weight, or even just body weight. Using a slow controlled motion engages the muscle more but also helps with reducing the likelihood of a muscle strain.
- Stick with it. Most people are good at starting a program, but have difficulty staying engaged. Experts say it takes at least 3 weeks of consistency to make a habit. So don’t give up! Plus, true strength gains (increasing the size of your muscle fibers) takes 6-8 weeks of consistent effort. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends beginners start with total body strengthening 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days.
- Focus on form, not weight. It is important to do things correctly for safety but also to get the most out of each exercise. Ask for help when necessary. There are plenty of professionals out there willing to help; use your resources wisely. Physical therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers and certified group fitness instructors are a great place to start. When using online resources, I suggest making sure the source of the information is credible.
- Periodically change your routine. Keep challenging your muscles by slowly adding resistance over time or by changing exercises. Our bodies eventually adapt to the training regimen; adding variety periodically gives the body a new challenge.
Although I have many inspirational success stories of strength training that I could share about my patients, I will conclude with a personal testimony. I am a firm believer in practicing what I preach. All of my adult life, I have been consistent with staying active and eating healthy. However, if I am honest, strength training has been an area of my wellness routine that has been hit or miss. When setting my wellness goals in 2020, I committed to lifting weights 2x per week; no more excuses for me. I found an accountability partner. Even when the gyms shut down due to COVID-19, we stayed consistent in our homes. After 6 months of lifting weights, I have proof of these benefits in my own life. My most satisfying improvement was discovered in a lab draw. I lowered my cholesterol 40+ points without medication, supplements, or major dietary changes. I have stubborn, hereditary high cholesterol; so seeing a fairly big change was a major validation for me. In addition, my resting heart rate decreased. I lost weight and body fat percentage. I also met a personal goal of being able to lift a weight that I lifted years ago while attending Northwestern College. Yes, I learned this 40 year old body is capable of more than I thought. I share this story not to gloat, but to inspire. Our bodies can do amazing things if trained properly. Don’t sell yourself short! Believe in the resilient design of our miraculous bodies! I challenge you to be courageous and see for yourself the benefits of strength training!