Women over 50 have been relatively slow to embrace weight training as part of their exercise routine. By skipping strengthening exercise, they may be missing out on proven benefits for the brain as well as the body.
Some obstacles to weight training are physical, but others are psychological. When you're first starting out, a few simple steps may help you get past doubts, worries, and misconceptions that are holding you back.
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that adults should do muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days per week, working all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms). That’s in addition to 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity cardio activity.
Most of us fall short of those goals, however. Among women ages 65-74, for example, only 15% meet CDC guidelines for both muscle-strengthening and cardio exercise. An exercise regimen that neglects strength workouts is particularly unfortunate for women over 50.
“Recent research has shown that weight training increases muscle mass and reduces body fat, while [cardio] exercise only reduces fat,” says Rachel Straub, M.S., CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and coauthor of Weight Training Without Injury. “This highlights the role of weight training in preserving muscle mass and maintaining a healthy metabolism.”
In later life, muscle-strengthening exercise also helps maintain mobility and prevent falls. It can make a big difference in a woman’s ability to remain independent and carry out daily activities, such as carrying packages and climbing stairs.
Emerging research shows that weight training may have specific benefits for brain health as well. In one study, 155 older women were randomly assigned to do either resistance training (once or twice a week) or balance and toning exercise (twice a week) for a year.
One year after the exercise training provided by the research team stopped, the researchers checked back to see how the women were faring. Those in the two resistance training groups had an advantage in cognitive performance, compared to those in the balance and toning group. In addition, those who had taken part in twice-weekly resistance training showed less wasting of the brain’s white matter on structural MRI scans.
“White matter represents the highways of the brain,” says study coauthor Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Ph.D., PT, Canada Research Chair in physical activity, mobility, and cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. “It allows transmission of messages from one area of the brain to another.”
Researchers still aren’t sure exactly how exercise affects cognition and brain volume in older women. “But we speculate that resistance training may increase a growth factor called IGF-1,” Liu-Ambrose says.
Given all the benefits of weight training, why aren’t more women over 50 hanging out in the weight training area at the gym? In some cases, there are limiting health conditions. Often, however, the obstacles are psychological, ranging from lack of information to lack of confidence. Below are some common psychological hurdles along with a few ideas for overcoming them.
Obstacle 1. Feeling self-conscious and out of place
“The weight training section of many gyms can be intimidating,” says Gretchen Kubacky, Psy.D., a health psychologist in Los Angeles. “You see a guy who’s buffed out like the old Arnold Schwarzenegger, and there you are with your underarm flap.”
To reduce self-consciousness, shop around for a gym where you feel comfortable. “Visit before signing up, preferably at the times when you’ll be going,” Kubacky says. “Look for a gym where the culture and environment suit you. For example, the gym I go to is a place where people of all ages and body types are welcome. Find a place where it’s not a big deal just to be you.”
Obstacle 2. Worrying about getting hurt
Fear of injury is another frequent impediment to weight training. That’s a very reasonable concern if you don’t know what you’re doing. “Based on epidemiological data, strength training injuries increased by nearly 50% from 1990 to 2007, with older adults experiencing the highest increases in injury rates,” says Straub.
To minimize the risk, check with your physician first if you have a health condition that may affect your ability to exercise. Then sign up for some sessions with an exercise professional who has expertise in working with women your age. “Your top priorities should be to master proper form and to create a strength training program you can stick to consistently,” Straub says.
Obstacle 3. Having trouble finding the time
When you were in your twenties, thirties, and forties, you may have told yourself that life would be simpler after 50. That isn’t always the case, however. Kubacky notes that many 50-and 60-somethings are at the peak of their careers. At the same time, some are still raising children, some are caring for an ill spouse or aging parent, and others are juggling both. Finding time for exercise may be as difficult as ever.
To work in workouts, schedule exercise times just as you would other important appointments. “Literally write them down or type them into your calendar,” Kubacky says.
Obstacle 4. Believing that cardio is all you need
“Many of us have been brainwashed into believing that cardio is everything,” says Kubacky. “And yes, it’s helpful when you’re fighting menopausal weight gain.” Doctors, too, often focus on cardio exercise for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Yet strengthening exercise is also crucial for overall well-being.
To develop a more balanced approach to exercise, educate yourself about what strength training adds, and identify the motivation that matters most to you. Maybe you want to remain physically active enough to keep enjoying a favorite sport. Or maybe you want to remain mentally sharp enough to stay at the top of your career game.
In either case, strength training can be beneficial. “Exercise is the only strategy I can think of that benefits both your mobility and your brain health,” says Liu-Ambrose.