A few years ago, a number of things happened pretty much all at once: I had a breast cancer scare (which turned out to be fine); I was in a car accident, I turned 50 (the age at which my mother died), and I began experiencing the first symptoms of perimenopause. I reacted to these incidents as one does: I experienced a midlife crisis that resulted in, among other things, a new strength-training routine. That is, in an effort to live as healthfully as possible and ward off mortality for as long as possible, I ramped up my weekly visits to the gym and for, the first time since graduate school, began lifting weights. To stay motivated, I started scheduling exercise sessions into my phone calendar as if they were medical appointments I could not break.
You might already be doing yoga, swimming laps, or going to the gym to do cardio, but if you’re not also doing strength (a.k.a resistance) training, then you’re missing a key component in your exercise and health routine. Some women avoid strength training because they think they’ll get too buff, but unless you spend hours a day weight lifting and take testosterone, that’s quite unlikely. And the benefits of strength training, especially for women over 40, are huge. Among other things, strength training can do the following:
- Boost Our Metabolism. Lose weight without changing our diet? Yes, please. Strength training builds muscle, which, in turn, increases our resting metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories when you’re watching TV, working, reading, checking out our Facebook group, etc.). It’s almost like magic … except for the heavy lifting part.
- Decrease Our Risk of Osteoporosis. At around 30 we start losing up to 3-5% of lean muscle mass each year due to aging. Studies show that weight-bearing exercises improve bone density, reducing women’s risk of osteoporosis and preventing fractures in women who already have the disease.
- Get Us in the Mood. If you find your libido lacking during perimenopause or menopause, a fun cure is to reach for … the nearest dumbbell. An increase in testosterone raises the libido in both men and women, and lifting weights raises testosterone (briefly) after a workout.
- Help Prevent Heart Disease. Heart disease risk is lower when the body is leaner. Strength training helps the body become leaner. Need further proof? One 2018 study showed that lifting weights for less than an hour a week may reduce the risk for a heart attack or stroke by 40-70%.
- Make Us Better at Being Single. Experts say improved handgrip strength is a marker of overall strength. So, you know, you can open your own jars.
- Improve Our Mood. According to one 2018 study, depressive symptoms—including those caused by estrogen loss during menopause—might be lessened by strength training.
- Look More Toned. Three words: Michelle Obama’s arms.
- Catch Our Zzzs. Research shows that doing regular cardio combined with regular strength training improves sleep quality more than doing cardio alone.
- Banish Belly Fat. Unlike fat in our thighs or our derrière, fat in our belly is dangerous, increasing the risk of such complications as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It also becomes more difficult to get rid of (as you may have noticed… I know I have). The best way to cut belly fat? Yep, you guessed it. Strength training.
- Live Forever! Well, maybe not forever, but a lot longer than our less muscled peers, according to this study. Just look at 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who works out regularly with a personal trainer, Bryant Johnston, whom she calls the most important person in her life. A reporter from Politico tried her workout and lived to tell the tale … barely.
So now that you know why you need to start strength training, the next question is how? Although it can seem daunting to incorporate a new exercise routine into our already busy lives, we only need to strength train a minimum of two days a week, with 8-12 repetitions of 8-10 different exercises that target all major muscle groups, to start reaping the benefits (and seeing results!). Plus, no fancy and expensive equipment is required. You can use your own body weight (think push-ups), resistance bands, or free weights, and strength train in your own home, maybe even while bingeing Netflix.
Here are a couple of good routines to try to get you started:
You might also check out videos on YouTube and follow fitness gurus on Instagram who post new exercises to try. Some of my favorites include @brittnebabefitness, @stephaniesanzo, @gymglutes, @Kayla_itsines, @alexia_clark, @fit.with.iulia, @whitneyysimmons, @fitfemalesclub @_workoutvideo, and @MyNameIsJessamyn. (Okay, the last one is a yoga account, not a strength training one, but I figured you were probably as tired of seeing size 2 bodies as I was by now, and we all need a little yoga in our lives after all that resistance training!)
As always, before starting any new exercise routine, check with your doctor. (And p.s., kegels count as strength training!)
Kelly Dwyer is a novelist, playwright, and freelance writer, who grew up in California and lives outside Madison, Wisconsin. Her favorite exercise is attending barre classes, and her least favorite exercise is walking across icy parking lots in winter.