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 required. You can accomplish this while listening to a podcast, waiting for laundry to finish or watching television. But why is strength training even necessary?
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 (muscle and bone) and often increase fat mass.
As she nears menopause, hormonal changes accomplish two things. First, the physiological priority switches from reproduction to self-preservation. Second, metabolism slows to preserve energy and body fat which, harkening back to hunter-gatherer times, guarded against the aging body’s increasing difficulty accessing nourishment.
Lean mass 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, therefore, increasing the ratio of fat to lean mass. Increasing fat mass, even without gaining body weight, is unhealthy because it raises risks 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 testosterone levels decrease at middle age and beyond.
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. Lean tissue breaks down during resistance training. 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 weekly. 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 strengthiening or cardio-strength combo 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. Many of my clients come to me for assistance in establishing a strength training program to compliment the cardio 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 and FitnessBlender offer free YouTube workout videos.
- POPSUGAR Fitness and Greatist provide links to new exercises and workouts daily.
- The Daily Burn: subscription-based workout service
- ACE Fitness posts 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 sells DVD and digital workouts at $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.
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.
Already Strength Training?
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 your strength workouts. After strength training the same way over time, our bodies no longer make significant gains. Changing how you work muscles can give you a boost in lean mass and metabolism.
While this month’s Small Step is straight-forward it can be a tall order for many of us. But none of us can consider ourselves truly 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.