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Iron Ladies

By New You Editorial
Posted On Oct 07, 2016
Iron Ladies

Just when these accomplished women could have kicked back to enjoy some R&R, they took up old-school weight training—a choice that did more than simply sculpt their bodies. 

By Valerie Latona

For decades, we’ve been on a bit of a misguided quest for the Holy Grail of fitness, beauty, and youth.  While most of the latest fitness trends in which women engage-—the countless hours of yoga, aerobics, spinning, Zumba, or jogging—possess individual health benefits, they often cause stress on joints and fail to address one of the most important things we need as we age: muscle mass. If you are over 35 and familiar with this scenario, then you’re missing out on the key benefits of old-school bodybuilding, which may be the single most powerful investment in preserving your health as you age.

So why should women over the age of 35 pump iron? Your muscle mass impacts, to a large extent, your health and quality of life. Your percentage of muscle determines your metabolic rate, or how efficiently you burn calories or produce energy. It also affects key hormones that control your weight, such as estrogen and insulin. Muscle protects your joints and bones, and is ultimately responsible for how strong, vital, and sexy you feel.

If this argument isn’t compelling enough, your body mass index controls the risk of many diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, vascular disease, and cancer. Last but certainly not least, increasing muscle mass will tighten skin. This is a far more rational approach than shelling out the billions of dollars currently spent on skin-tightening treatments.

Paula Burger, a Fort Lauderdale personal trainer for celebrities and professional athletes, recommends resistance training to all of her clients—at least three times a week for 30 minutes. After age 35, Burger says, our hormones decline and we naturally lose muscle mass. As a result, we start to gain weight. Weight training can shift this tide significantly.

Studies conducted by Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, back this up. Westcott found that strength training two to three times a week for just two months helps women gain nearly 2 pounds of muscle and lose 3.5 pounds of fat. Why? As the body increases muscle mass, our fat-burning furnace (known as our metabolism) fires up, which means we burn more calories and fat all day long, even when we’re sitting. This is key as we age, because our metabolism slows down with every passing year. Such is the reason you’re eating the same foods that you did years ago, yet now you’re gradually packing on weight. Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., author of the national bestseller Strong Women Stay Young, is a passionate proponent of women lifting weights. Her position is based upon research conducted through the StrongWomen Program (Strongwomen.com), a women’s national community exercise and nutrition initiative. Nelson found that after a year of strength training twice a week, women had less fat and more muscle, and they also dramatically increased strength and energy. They also experienced improvements in balance and flexibility, and prevented or reversed bone loss.

Weight training gets impressive bone-building results because it stimulates the cells that maintain bone structure. When you engage in weight-bearing exercise, these cells (called osteoblasts) lay down new bone tissue to strengthen the points where the bone is stressed. If you engage in regular strength training and continually challenge yourself with heavier weights and more repetitions, these osteoblasts continue to reinforce the bone, over and over again, reducing the risk of serious health problems. Among the conditions that this training wards off: osteopenia, or low bone density; full-blown osteoporosis; and sarcopenia, or gradual loss of muscle mass. All can affect how you age as well as your quality of life. After all, a life in which you can’t move freely without pain is not what you signed up for.

Kris Wilkes, 59, is a former federal prosecutor and senior partner at an international law firm in San Diego. She has experienced the life-changing benefits of weight training firsthand. “I was in a demanding career, often working 16 to 18 hours a day,” explains Wilkes, now a 20-year practitioner of weight training. “I would leave work feeling exhausted. But I forced myself to exercise after work. It became a great stress reliever. I started to feel energized because I was taking care of my body—not just using my mind, as I did at work.” (Exercise, both cardio and weight training, are proven mood boosters.)

But Wilkes found that while cardio did help reduce her stress, it didn’t re-shape her body as she had expected. “I’d see these girls coming out of Gold’s Gym with amazing bodies—something that we just weren’t achieving in the aerobics studio next door,” she explains. Wilkes credits those Gold’s girls with inspiring her to get a trainer and push up some weight. “Of all the things I’ve done before —yoga, Pilates, running, step classes, CrossFit—weight lifting is the one thing that has truly sculpted my body and changed it for the better.” (Wilkes now competes regularly in International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness competitions.)

Wilkes plans out her course of action—something a trainer taught her to do early on, to sculpt her body and avoid injury. She works different body parts on different days. “On some days I do chest, shoulders, and biceps, followed by a leg day,” she says. “The next day, I’ll do back and triceps. On  the last day, I’ll work my abs and calves. You really have to thoroughly train the areas you’re targeting in order to get results.” Having the right trainer is also a key factor . “There are many different things you can do to build muscle, and a certified trainer can help you develop an individualized plan to help you achieve your goals.”

“You have to get out of your comfort level to see results,” adds Burger. “When you’re 50 or older, you can’t just go and do some shoulder presses and curls with 5-pound weights. You’ve got to  build up to the next level. A trainer can help you do that,” she says. “I have a 75-year-old client doing step-ups with 15-pound dumbbells; she didn’t start there. She had to work up to it, but she did, and now she’s getting really great results.”

“There’s a myth about weight lifting and women,” says Wilkes. “Women think if they lift heavy weights, they are going to bulk up and look like a man. That’s not happening. Our muscles and hormone levels are different, and we’re not capable of bulking up like they are.”

Female body builders who develop masculine physiques have extreme diets, exercise routines, and now and then use hormone supplementation. With normal routines and healthy diets, bodybuilding yields a feminine physique with taut skin.

“Having a goal to work toward keeps you young,” adds Carol Matthews, 68, a personal trainer in Fort Lauderdale. “Every woman should lift weights. You’re never too old to start.” But Matthews also stresses the importance of balancing the rest of your life, too: “Eat clean and healthy—and prep food for the day so you have things with you. Get plenty of rest, and do cardio—even if it’s walking.”

Meg Kruse, a San Diego trainer who turned professional bodybuilder at 55, agrees, saying: “You need to feed your body fuel—healthy protein like lean meats, fish, eggs, and beans; vegetables; and healthy carbs.”

In order to build and support muscle, protein is the key ingredient. Most experts recommend consuming roughly 3 servings of 4 ounces of lean protein each day. The dietary intake should be low in sugar and high in vegetables.

Weight training—along with a balanced life—makes you stronger, boosts health, and wards off disease. There’s also a tiny bit of vanity that comes from wearing sleeveless dresses with ease, as well as confidence that comes from lifting your own shopping bags or your suitcase—even your grandkids—without help. All of these goals are what keep growing numbers of women, like Wilkes and Kruse, committed to this effective line of training. “So we’re getting older,” says Kruse. “Women who strength train are not going to break their hips and they’re not going to ride up the stairs in one of those trolley things. And we’re not going to the grave with a muffin top. I like to call what we’re doing aging gracefully, and actively.”

Benefits of Resistance Training

  •  increase muscle mass
  • strengthen bone mass
  • maintain body weight
  • maintain blood sugar levels
  • improve sleep
  • improve mood, self-esteem
  • improve appearance

Getting Started

  • Before beginning any new exercise routine, consult your physician for a check-up. It’s important that you are in tune with your overall health and any conditions that may affect your ability to exercise.
  • Consult a personal trainer at your local health club. Make sure that the individual has experience working with women in your age group and understands your goals.
  • Get an exercise “buddy.” Having someone to hold you accountable will increase your rate of success.
  • Plan on two to three, 20- to 30-minute sessions of strength training a week, alternating work on different body parts. Choose a weight or resistance level that will tire muscles after 12 repetitions. When you can do more than 15 reps without tiring, increase the weight or resistance.
  • Consume 20 grams of protein with each meal, avoid simple sugars, and include 7 servings of vegetables daily.