This month’s Small Step is as simple, in theory, as it sounds: add just one thing to your weekly routine. You need only 30 minutes a week to do it and you don’t need any special equipment. And, it can be done while other things are happening around you: while baking something in the oven, listening to a podcast, waiting for the next load of laundry to finish or watching television. But, for many, this one thing can be difficult to find the motivation to do. For this reason, there won’t be a diet Small Step this month. Just one, very important exercise Small Step – add one strength training workout to your weekly routine.
Why strength train? For most women, the closer she gets to middle age and menopause, the more difficult it is to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight and keep her percentage of body fat from increasing unless she strength trains regularly. It is a physiological and evolutionary fact.
As a woman nears menopause, the hormonal changes are meant to accomplish two things. First, the woman’s body switches priority from making, growing and nursing babies to self-preservation. Second, think back to hunter-gatherer times, the body will slow processes down to preserve energy and body fat to guard against the aging body’s increasing difficulty in accessing food and water. Put more bluntly, a 15 year old cave woman could gather up food in a fraction of the time it would take a 30 year old cave woman. So, not only do the hormonal changes stop the fertility cycle but they also simultaneously affect metabolism. Lean mass (muscle and bone) requires calories to maintain. The body will shed lean mass – an average of 1/2 pound per year beginning at age 30 – to slow metabolism. Less lean mass and a slower metabolism means that less food is required to nourish the body and excess consumption can be stored as body fat to sustain her through scarcer times. The body, in essence, decided that body fat is more valuable to survival for the aging female than muscle and bone mass and adapted accordingly. We are all here because our earliest ancestors’ bodies adapted in this miraculous way.
But what was a nifty survival adaptation for them is a real fitness hurdle for us. It’s a vicious cycle of lean mass loss, which slows our metabolism, which leads to increasing fat mass, further slowing our metabolism and accelerating lean mass loss.
If you are among the few females who have 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 the increase on the scale. 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 total body weight, is unhealthy because it increases one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, low HDL (“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.
Calorie reduction is only a temporary stop-gap because eventually the body will believe it’s in the scarcity mode and will accelerate the cycle. While cardiovascular exercise can burn some excess calories and help keep the cardiovascular system healthy, it cannot break the cycle because it doesn’t build lean mass. Only regular strength training – resistance training the major muscle groups of the body 1-3 times per week – increases bone density and muscle mass to break the cycle.
Here are some ways to incorporate strength training into your fitness routine:
Classes: If you belong to a gym, health club or fitness studio that offers classes, it’s likely they offer stand-alone strength training or combination cardio-strength training classes. Look for words like pump, sculpt, Pilates or TRX in the class title.
Personal Trainer: While most people feel comfortable picking up cardio activities like walking, running or cycling without consulting an expert, not so with strength training. Most of my clients come to me looking for assistance in establishing an effective, safe and personalized strength training program to compliment the cardio training they do on their own.
Video/Digital: There is an endless amount of strength training videos available for free online as well as reasonably priced video and digital subscriptions, rentals and purchases. I recently highlighted online instructor Cassey Ho, who hosts Blogilates, a free online fitness calendar and blog with accompanying YouTube instructional videos. POPSUGAR Fitness and Greatist are two free web feeds I subscribe to that offer links to new exercises and workouts every day of the week. ACE Fitness provides free step-by-step exercise and workout videos as well as a tool to find classes and trainers in your area. My favorite strength training video/digital offering remains the Exhale Spa Core Fusion workouts. I got them originally on DVD but many are now offered digitally through Amazon. They range in price from $8-12 for single disks/digital videos and $15-20 for sets. They are well worth the price as they are sound, well-cued, challenging workouts that incorporate many disciplines such as yoga, mat Pilates, Bootcamp, Barre and traditional strength training in one workout with minimal equipment required.
DIY: I do at least one of my weekly strength training workouts at home while I watch a half-hour television show. Here is a link to my 30 minute body-weight strength and flexibility training workout. Or scroll down to the bottom of that link to find strength workouts to compliment your favorite cardio or sports activities.
How often? To stop losing lean mass and to 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, obtain noticeable increases in strength and realize visible toning, two or three bouts per week is necessary. The important fact to remember about strength training is all gains come in the 48 hours after the workout. We actually breakdown muscle tissue during the workout, it is in the process of regeneration following the workout that we regain and build more tissue. Therefore, it’s important to allow at least one day off from strength training after a session, every other day is optimal. This is why it’s not recommended to do more than three sessions per week. When and how often one does strength training doesn’t affect the timing of cardiovascular training. It’s perfectly safe to do cardiovascular training the day before, after or even the same day as a strength training session.
If you already do strength training but not three times per week, this month’s Small Step should be adding another bout to your regular routine. If that’s not possible or if you’re already maximizing your 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 a strength training component. It is essential to a fit and happier life.
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.
Author’s Note: Always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.