This month’s Small Step is simple: add one strength training workout to your weekly routine. A mere 30 minute weekly commitment and no special equipment necessary. You can accomplish this while baking something in the oven, listening to a podcast, waiting for laundry to finish or watching television.
The Problem: Evolution
For most women approaching middle age, losing or maintaining weight becomes more difficult because it’s a physiological and evolutionary truth that an aging woman will lose lean mass and, often, increase fat mass.
As a woman nears menopause, hormonal changes are meant to accomplish two things. First, the physiological priority switches from baby-making to self-preservation. Second, thinking back to hunter-gatherer times, the body slowed processes down to preserve energy and body fat to guard against the aging body’s increasing difficulty in accessing food and water.
Lean mass (muscle and bone) requires calories to maintain while fat serves as insulation and a long-term energy source. So the body shed lean mass to slow metabolism. Less lean mass and a slower metabolism meant that less food was required to nourish the body and excess consumption could be stored as body fat to sustain her through scarcer times. We’re all here because our ancestors’ bodies adapted this way.
But what was a survival adaptation for them is a fitness hurdle for us. We shed an average of 1/2 pound of lean mass per year beginning at age 30. A vicious cycle of lean mass loss, slowing metabolism, leading to increasing fat mass, further slowing metabolism and accelerating lean mass loss.
If you’re among the few females who’ve super metabolism despite not having the muscle mass and accompanying testosterone of a male, thank your lucky stars and your genes because you may be able to avoid weight gain. But that doesn’t protect you from losing lean mass and, as a result, increasing the ratio of fat to lean mass. Increasing fat mass, even without an increase in body weight, is unhealthy because it raises risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, high bad cholesterol, low good cholesterol and osteoporosis.
Guys aren’t immune. A similar, albeit less drastic, phenomenon occurs in men as they approach middle age and testosterone levels decrease.
The Solution: Strength Training
Calorie reduction is only a temporary stop-gap because eventually the body will believe it’s in scarce mode and accelerate the cycle. While cardiovascular exercise can burn some excess calories, it cannot break the cycle because it doesn’t build lean mass. Only regular strength training increases bone density and muscle mass to break the cycle.
To stop losing lean mass and make modest gains, a minimum of one full-body strength training bout per week is recommended. However, to make more significant gains in lean mass and strength and realize visible toning, two or three bouts per week is necessary.
All lean mass gains come in the 48 hours after the workout. We breakdown muscle tissue during the workout, it’s in the process of regeneration afterwards that we regain and build more tissue. Therefore, at least one day off after a strength training session is necessary. Every other day is optimal with a maximum of three sessions per week. Strength training doesn’t affect the timing of cardiovascular training. It’s perfectly safe to do cardio the day before, after or even the same day as strength training.
Classes: If you belong to a gym, club or studio that offers classes, they likely offer stand-alone strength or cardio-strength training classes. Look for words like pump, sculpt, Pilates or TRX in the title.
Personal Trainer: While most people feel comfortable doing cardio activities without consulting an expert, not so with strength training. Most of my clients come to me for assistance in establishing an effective, safe and personalized strength training program to compliment the cardio training they already do.
Video/Digital: There’s an endless amount of free strength training videos available online as well as reasonably priced video and digital subscriptions, rentals and purchases. Here’s a sampling:
- Blogilates, YouTube instructional videos, free online fitness calendar and blog
- POPSUGAR Fitness and Greatist are two free web feeds I subscribe to that offer links to new exercises and workouts daily.
- ACE Fitness: Website provides free step-by-step exercise and workout videos as well as a tool to find classes and trainers in your area.
- Exhale Spa Core Fusion DVD or digital workouts, $8-12 for single workouts and $15-20 for sets. My personal favorites, they’re well-cued and challenging, incorporating disciplines like yoga, mat Pilates, Bootcamp, Barre and traditional strength training with minimal equipment required. The beauty of their format is that each 50-60 minute workout is broken down into self-contained ten minute modules so you can perform as many (or as few) modules as will fit into your schedule.
DIY: Here’s a link to my 30 minute no equipment strength and flexibility training workout. Or scroll to the bottom to find links to strength workouts to compliment your favorite cardio or sports activities. These are perfect to do while watching TV or during downtime between chores.
If you already strength train but not three times per week, this month’s Small Step should be to add another bout to your regular routine. If that’s not possible or if you’re already maximizing strength training opportunities, I recommend changing up what you do for strength training. Our bodies benefit from variations in our workouts, especially strength training.
This month’s Small Step is a tall order for most of us. But none of us can truly consider ourselves fit without it.
If you’re new to the Small Steps series, you can read about the philosophy and strategies of the series here. Know the Small Steps strategies don’t need to be done in any particular order and are independent of one another. So, you can begin the series with this post, continue throughout the rest of the year and pick up what you missed next year.