Over 40? Head for weights at the gym

Strength training can reverse loss of bone density, hold off osteoporosis in older women

Stay Fit

April 07, 2006|By MARY BETH REGAN | MARY BETH REGAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I'm a woman in my 40s. I usually get my cardio in each week, but my friends tell me I need to be lifting. Is this true, and how do I get started on something that's not going to take over my entire day?

This is one of those times that it makes sense to listen to your friends.

Strength training is important for a woman of your age, in part because it helps keep your bones strong. It's not uncommon for women as young as 35 to enter a phase called osteopenia, in which the body starts to lose bone density. Strength training can reverse this trend and hold off osteoporosis.

One of the best books I've ever read on this subject is Strong Women, Stay Young, by Dr. Miriam E. Nelson, of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Nelson wrote the book in 1998 after conducting a study on postmenopausal women.

In short, Nelson says that after one year of strength training, women who had experienced bone loss because of aging showed an amazing physical rebound: Their bodies were 15 to 20 years more youthful, she says.

Is that enough to get you pumping iron? Nelson's book outlines a complete program that you can do at home with free weights. She includes a chapter on "Getting the Gear" that outlines what you need: ankle weights, dumbbells, a sturdy chair and comfortable clothes.

If you are fortunate enough to belong to a gym, you might consider a quick consultation with a personal trainer. At my gym, the trainers will set you up on a 22-minute weight circuit for free. They will show you how to use equipment and make certain your seats and weights are set properly. Then it's up to you.

During a recent gym visit, personal trainer John Thate, who studied exercise physiology at Towson University, outlined the basics of a successful beginner's program.

Program design--Whether you read a book or work with a trainer, Thate advises a program that works your major muscle groups. Then, do your weights so that you alternate between muscle groups. For example, set up your routine so that you are moving from a leg press (which works your quads) to a chest press (which works your delts and triceps). Don't move from leg exercise to leg exercise.

Weights--For the first week, adjust weights to the doable, then find the weight that will work your muscles to the point of near failure. That means that you need to push yourself to the point of hardly being able to do your final rep. If you are able to run through your weights easily, or talk to your neighbor while you are lifting, then you probably aren't lifting enough.

Repetitions--Thate likes to start clients at 12 reps on each machine. The MAC uses 11 machines in a setup called the Success Circuit, which exercisers can expect to complete in about 20 minutes.

Thate says because you are trying to tone, rather than build muscle, you want to keep your reps at 12 but move up in weight. Also, he suggests lifting at least three times a week, but no more than every other day. Lifting every day won't give your muscles time to recover and repair.

Cardio--Don't give up on it. Arrive at the gym early on weight-training days, Thate says, and warm up by doing some cardio. But don't wear yourself out. Do your weights, then finish with a longer cardio workout. And then stretch. Don't try to lift without at least warming your muscles first, or you could injure yourself.

Good luck. And remember, you are lifting not only to look good, but also to keep your bones strong.

Are you a Stay Fit success? If so, share your story. Please send details to fitness@baltsun.com, or via regular mail to Fitness Q&A, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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