First the bad news: Muscle mass naturally decreases with age. If you don’t do anything to replace the muscle you lose, you’ll add fat.
Now the good news: Strength training can help you preserve and enhance your muscle mass, countering weight gain and adding other benefits.
“After age 30, adults lose 2 percent of their muscle mass each decade," says Edward Laskowski, M.D. He's a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and codirector of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. "Although aerobic workouts like walking or running are important, they can’t take the place of strength training when it comes to building and preserving muscle.”
These are other pluses of strength training:
Stronger bones. By stressing your bones, strength training increases bone density and helps reduce the risk for osteoporosis.
Reduced risk for injury. Building muscle protects your joints from injury. It also helps you maintain flexibility and balance.
Increased stamina. As you grow stronger, you won’t fatigue as easily. This will make everyday chores and activities easier to accomplish.
Improved sense of well-being. Strength training can boost your self-confidence and improve your body image.
Consider your options
Health clubs and fitness centers offer various resistance machines, free weights, and other tools for strength training. But you don’t have to buy a club membership or an expensive home gym to reap the benefits of strength training.
“Many people like the support of working in a gym setting with other people, but if you’d rather be on your own, you can do an effective workout with handheld weights or resistance bands at home,” says Dr. Laskowski.
In the beginning, it’s wise to work with a weight-training specialist, such as an athletic trainer or physical therapist.
“After you’ve got your technique down, you can work on your own as long as you check in with your trainer every few months,” Dr. Laskowski says.
These guidelines can keep you safe and on track with your weight-training program:
Check with your doctor. If you’re older than 40 and inactive, talk with your doctor before starting a weight-training program. This is especially important if you have arthritis, heart disease, or other health conditions that could be affected by lifting weights. “It’s likely you can still strength train, but there may be some accommodations you should make,” says Dr. Laskowski.
Set goals. Make sure you and your trainer have a clear reason why you’re doing each exercise. “Weight training for overall fitness is different from weight training for a particular sport or activity,” Dr. Laskowski says.
Lift an appropriate amount of weight. A weight that causes fatigue at 12 repetitions is a good stimulus for muscle strength and toning.
Be patient. Most people will see a 50 percent increase in strength within six months by doing two or three 20- to 30-minute strength-training sessions a week.
“There are so many benefits to strength training,” says Dr. Laskowski. “Making it a part of your routine is one of the best things you can do for physical and emotional well-being.”