Inspiration and info for midlife women who lift—or want to start

Dumbbell rack in a weightroom

Over 40? 8 Reasons to Lift Weights

In my 30s, I exercised to look good. In my 50s, to stay fit. In my 70s, to stay ambulatory. In my 80s, to avoid assisted living. Now, in my 90s, I’m just doing it out of pure defiance.

Dick Van Dyke

Let’s face it. Many women, especially those of us over 40, find the idea of lifting weights unfamiliar at best, and scary at worst. 

In general, our culture has not historically encouraged girls and women to get strong. Thankfully, the public perception of strength training for younger women and girls has been evolving at a pretty rapid clip over the past 10-15 years. But lifting doesn’t even occur to most older women—think Gen X and up.

This is true even for women who grew up on farms, moving pieces of equipment and tossing bales of hay and mucking stalls—or who were serious athletes in high school or college.

Women in mid-life are expected to run, or do aerobics and yoga and spin classes. That’s “normal.”  Perhaps the aerobics instructor will encourage us to add light dumbbells to the routine to “tone” our arms, or we might use small weights in HIIT and other pump-type workouts.

But most 40-plus women have never spent any significant time in the free weights area of their gym, if they’ve ever ventured into it at all. Only about 20% of women of ANY age lift weights.

That’s for the guys. 

Negative messages

Unfortunately, to the extent that many of us have heard anything about strength training, it’s been negative: from the media, from friends and family, from significant others—even, perhaps most disturbingly of all, from the very people who should know better: fitness professionals and doctors.   

“You’re too old for that.” (You’re not.)

“You’ll hurt yourself.” (You won’t.)

And my personal favorite:

“You’re going to get bulky. Do you want to look like a man?” (This one is laughable but, sadly, the most persistent myth about women and lifting.)

UGH.

I know this to be true, not only from my life before lifting, but from the many conversations I’ve had with women in my cohort since I started.

Is it any surprise that most older women still know very little about the value and importance of strength training? 

The single most important thing

That disconnect between perception and reality makes me absolutely, seethingly furious.

Because while we still need much more research on the impact of strength training on older women (as well as on older men)—enough HAS been done to point to one indisputable conclusion:

Strength training may be the single most important thing we can do to age well and live longer. 

And while that’s true for people of all genders, it’s especially true for women.

Why?

There are LOTS of reasons. In fact, there are entire books covering the topic. But here are my top eight: 

Rather than try to tackle all of these at once—because again, there are whole books devoted to this—I’m going to do it one post at a time, starting here.

My hope is that, if you haven’t considered or started strength training yet, this post and others to follow will give you a friendly little push in that direction.

If you already lift, there are no doubt people in your circle who are skeptical, baffled, or just plain curious. Most likely you’ve got a few friends who hadn’t considered strength training before, but have started to think about it because of your example. I want you to have an easy way to help them understand why you and other women (especially those in midlife) do this, and how profoundly they will benefit if they join the club.

So, without further ado, reason number one women over 40 need to start strength training:

1. Lifting weights prevents frailty

Do you want the opportunity to “age in place” as you get older? Do you want to be able to stay in your home—and better yet, to remain capable of doing the sports and activities you love, traveling, having adventures, playing with grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

If so, from this moment on, your enemy is frailty.

And your secret weapon to battling this mortal enemy is—that’s right—strength training. 

Lifting weights will give you the best chance you’ve got of staying out of a nursing home.

What do I mean by “frailty”?

Most of us are familiar with the layperson’s definition. We’ve all had elderly relatives in our lives or seen people around us that we’d call “frail.” But frailty is an actual medical condition—also known as “frailty syndrome“.

The precise definition and ways to measure frailty are still evolving, but the core idea is a deterioration of multiple body systems that includes loss of muscle mass (and sometimes weight–but not always), weakness, slowness, fatigue, and increasing lack of activity.

Frailty is a huge, but largely unaddressed, public health issue. Estimates vary depending on how frailty is measured, but it’s likely that 15% of Americans over the age of 65 can be considered frail.

And that risk rises with age. By some estimates, nearly 40% of people over 90 suffer from frailty.

Just think about how these numbers impact health care costs nationwide.

Becoming frail increases your risk of infections, hospitalization, falls and disabilities. It doubles your risk of surgical complications and lengthens hospital stays. If you’re unlucky enough to need surgery, it increases your odds of losing your independence and having to move to a nursing home or assisted-living facility by as much as 20x.

And frailty is more common in women than in men.

Goodbye, muscles

Very near the top of the cascade of deterioration that leads to what’s been called “the cycle of frailty” sits muscle loss, or sarcopenia

What’s “sarcopenia?”  The word comes from the Greek (“sarx” or flesh + “penia” or loss) and literally means “flesh poverty.” 

In simple English, sarcopenia is the loss of muscle: both muscle mass and muscle function.

As we age, we begin to lose muscle and strength at an alarming rate. A sedentary person who is doing nothing to combat this natural process of aging will average as much as 2% muscle loss per YEAR after age 50, although the process actually begins in our 30s. This goes for both men and women. 

Illustrated cross-section of muscle showing progression of sarcopenia from age 25 to age 65.

Sarcopenia has profound effects on almost every aspect of health, not just on the obvious stuff you’d normally associate with being weaker, like increased risk of falls.

Muscle loss is a prime mover in a chain reaction that results in the loss of health, independence, the ability to engage in many activities, and potentially even one’s mental faculties.

This is a true downward spiral that results in what Jonathon Sullivan, physician and author of the fabulous book The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40, calls the Sick Aging Phenotype. (We’ll talk more about this when we get into metabolism and cardiovascular health.)

It also results in frailty.

Age ≠ frailty

Here’s what’s both really tragic and really hopeful about this situation:

Despite what many people believe, muscle loss, and the frailty to which it leads, is not an inevitable outcome of aging.

Frailty is highly preventable.

That’s because, while biology and genetics play a role, in most of the world, frailty results mostly from lifestyle choices. 

Being sedentary—and, very specifically, not engaging in the type of activity that protects existing muscle and enables us to build more—is the underlying cause of sarcopenia in most adults. 

And the type of activity that builds muscle is…. drum roll please… resistance/strength training.

Also known as lifting weights.

All exercise is NOT created equal

While cardiovascular exercise like running and aerobics is very important for your health, it does not promote muscle formation.

In fact, those activities have what is known as a catabolic effect—they tend to break muscle DOWN. So while they’re super important because they support a healthy heart and lungs, they will not protect you from the effects of sarcopenia (or osteoporosis).

This is very unfortunately something the vast majority of women don’t understand. They figure if they’re running or doing Zumba regularly, they’re all set from a health/exercise point of view.

This is categorically false.

Here’s the truth: Runners who don’t strength train are just as likely to develop sarcopenia as someone who doesn’t exercise at all. In the absence of added strength training, aerobic exercise is no better than being sedentary when it comes to the risk of muscle loss.

In fact, if you’re also in a caloric deficit (i.e., if you’re dieting and running or doing aerobics to try to lose weight) you may actually be speeding UP the process of sarcopenia!

Resistance is NOT futile

To maintain and build our muscles, we must challenge them to work progressively harder over time by making them resist an external force. In very simple terms, that process causes our body to adapt and create more muscle in response to the additional demands being placed on it, thereby replacing what we’re losing to natural aging processes and—if we’re doing enough of it—adding supplemental muscle as well.  

Typically, the external force we’re resisting is gravity, in the form of weights.

Diet, particularly protein, goes hand in hand with resistance training, because in protein lie the building blocks of muscle-building. Without enough protein in your diet, your body can’t synthesize muscle in response to resistance training. You also need to be consuming sufficient calories. But that’s a topic for another post.

Salmon swimming upstream

If you are getting older, and you are not proactively working to prevent it, you ARE losing muscle mass.

Daily.

Right this minute, in fact.

Think of yourself as a salmon swimming upstream. If you sit still and do nothing, the raging rapids of advancing age will sweep you downriver and over the falls into frailty and illness.

Those of us in midlife need to work actively on muscle-building simply to obtain and stay at a healthy status quo: in other words, to not go backwards.

Those of us who compete in strength sports and aspire to continue adding muscle and getting progressively stronger as we age have to work that much harder at it and attack the problem from the multiple angles of training, nutrition, and proper recovery.

Millions and millions of people—MOST people—head into midlife every year with absolutely no idea about any of this. Most people over 40 have plenty of awareness about obesity and cardiovascular health (whether or not they adapt their lifestyle accordingly is another story), but frighteningly few know anything about the tremendous risk of sarcopenia or how to combat it. 

The medical world is finally waking up to this. Your doctor is more likely today than, say, a decade ago, to “prescribe” weight training… but still not very likely. In fact, too many doctors who have not familiarized themselves with a now-robust body of research about this topic still discourage older people from lifting weights, when it should be near the top of their list of recommendations.

An ounce (or maybe a few pounds) of prevention

The good news, though, is that, again, frailty is entirely preventable in most people. And preventing it doesn’t require fancy treatments or drugs or surgeries or crazy diets.

All you need are some heavy things to pick up and put down, and a little guidance on how to do that the right way, along with some common-sense practices around food. 

If you’re doing regular aerobic exercise, I applaud you. That’s super healthy for a myriad of reasons! But to protect yourself from sarcopenia and frailty, you need to add strength training to your exercise regimen.

Like most things, this “prescription” can be filled in multiple ways, and I’ll talk about the “how” in later posts. For now, I want to clarify the “why,” so you understand what it takes to enjoy getting older in a healthy, robust, strong body. 

Next time, we’ll look at another “why,” which connects strongly to the one we’ve just discussed: bone health and osteoporosis.

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Lift Weights to Prevent Osteoporosis

8 Comments

  1. Kathy Sells

    Great post! Agree with everything!

  2. Bonner Brown

    Great article. I’m going to pass it on. Trying to get my friends to join me is an uphill battle but my personal trainer now has 5 of us over 70 who didn’t start lifting until two years ago. It’s amazing to see the changes in us, both mentally and physically.

    • Thank you, Bonner, really glad you liked it. And it’s wonderful to hear about you and your trainer’s other 70+ clients! I’ve seen for myself how strong you’ve gotten (anyone reading this, Bonner is a competitive powerlifter and current national record holder)! Keep up the incredible work!

  3. El

    Excellent article. I don’t compete, but do bodybuilding type lifting 4 to 5 dats a week, with 30 minutes of cardio after it.

    • So glad you enjoyed it, Elaine! Sounds like a terrific program you’re on. I always find my hypertrophy-focused training blocks (I’m in one now) incredibly difficult and I have SO much respect for that style of training! (Also, looks like you attempted to subscribe but there’s an issue with the email address you entered [thank you!] – you probably need to do it again).

  4. Faced with the choice of only one of the two kinds of physical activities…STRENGTH takes all of my votes…

    There is nothing more important than strength as you age…a little bike ride or jog from time to time but not too much.. you’ll lose some muscle

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree completely that if you can choose only one, strength is the one to choose. There are many critical benefits to aerobic exercise too, though, that are key as we age. One doesn’t have to work super hard to get into the proper zone where the heart and lungs are doing what they need to do to achieve those benefits, while not being catabolic (losing muscle) – I’m actually working on adding more of that into my training!

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