I was lifting a pair of dumbbells in my garage when my daughters barged in and immediately began peppering me with questions. “What are those?” “Why are you doing that?” “Why are you so sweaty?” Too short of breath to explain the muscular benefits of overhead pressing and the science of perspiration, I responded with a question of my own: “Do you think I can press you overhead?”
Their faces lit up. I already knew I could handle their weights (35 and 40 pounds) in dumbbells, but dumbbells don’t giggle, wriggle or kick. “Hold your arms tightly to your chest and stand as still as a statue,” I instructed my younger daughter, before wrapping my hand around her crossed arms, bracing my core, squeezing my quads and glutes for stability, and slowly raising her from the ground to overhead as she squealed with delight.
At 42 and with a five- and a three-and-a-half-year-old, many would consider me an “older mom.” To some, that might mean I have fewer years of getting to do things like this with my kids. To me, it means fighting that much harder to eke out a few more. Strength training as I get older means I can stave off some of the negative effects of aging, such as loss of muscle mass and strength, for a little longer. But it can also make me better equipped to handle outside stressors such as anxiety, and boosts my cognitive function. It gives me the confidence to look at almost anything and think “bet I’m strong enough to lift that.”
Resistance training continues to surprise researchers with its impact far beyond rippling biceps, and you don’t have to be able to deadlift your body weight or spend endless hours in the gym to reap the benefits. Here’s why everyone – yes, even you – should be weight training.
Strength training is even more important as you get older
Resistance training can have powerful effects on our health as we age. A recent meta-analysis in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggested that undertaking any amount of resistance training reduced the risk of all-cause mortality by 15 per cent, cardiovascular disease mortality by 19 per cent and cancer mortality by 14 per cent. The greatest reduction in risk occurred when participants engaged in just 60 minutes of resistance training a week. The analysis “provides the strongest evidence to date that resistance training is associated with reduced risk of all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer-specific mortality,” the study says.
Bone-related concerns, including fractures, increase with age, but lifting weights has been shown to increase bone density which can help stave off concerns such as osteopenia and osteoporosis. It also improves balance which decreases the risk of falling.
For middle-aged women, resistance training can have a significant impact on quality of life. A 2023 meta-analysis in the Journal of Clinical Medicine concluded that for menopausal women, strength interventions showed significant improvements not only in strength but in bone density and hormonal and metabolic changes.
And while the most fascinating side effects of resistance training programs remain internal rather than aesthetic, those of us who spend a small fortune on our skin-care routine might want to pay attention to this finding: A study published in June indicated that resistance training can help improve the thickness of the dermis, the layer that provides strength and flexibility to the skin.
Learn to love taking up space
More than 30 years ago, Yale psychologist Dr. Kelly Brownell wrote about “the infinitely malleable body” as an unachievable ideal that is “beyond what many people can achieve with healthy and reasonable levels of dieting and exercise.” And yet, here we are still trying to achieve it.
People who engage in resistance training report greater confidence and happiness with their bodies. While some of that is certainly due to changes in body composition, most of the people I spoke with for my book suggested that it’s less about how their bodies look and more about what they can do.
For Nicole Corriero, a CrossFit Games athlete, strength training showed her that she could stop trying to mould her body into a shape it was never meant to fit. “It was the first time that I could appreciate my body for what it could do versus just how it looked,” she said. “I have big legs, but they can squat a lot of weight. I have muscular arms, but I can do handstand walk. It took me probably from the age of like 16 until the age of 36 to be like, I actually love my body and I’m so grateful for everything that it can do.”
When people engage in strength training, they shift the way they talk about their bodies, explains Dr. Drew Anderson, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Albany who specializes in assessing and treating eating disorders, body image disturbance, and psychological and medical problems associated with obesity. “They really start talking about the body in a different language,” he says. “It’s ‘I’m powerful and strong,’ as opposed to ‘I look good in a bathing suit.’ Some will say both; they like the aesthetic of a strong body. But they focus on power.”
The evolved meathead
We often think of the gym as the singular domain of brutish meatheads, but it turns out, lifting can actually make us happier and more embodied.
Resistance exercise training has been shown to make us feel more positive over time. Research suggests that resistance training specifically has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety in certain populations.
While yoga has long been prescribed as a method of healing from trauma, for many people lifting heavy things can provide similar relief. “Strength training has a natural structure to it that allows you to do a little bit and pause, do a little bit and pause,” explains Laura Khoudari, a trainer and trauma practitioner and the author of the book Lifting Heavy Things. “You have so much control over tapping into and pulling out of your body.”
So, do I just start by picking up a heavy barbell?
Not quite. The best way to start strength training safely, if you have the means, is to work one-on-one with a trainer who can teach you proper technique and make corrections as you move through each lift. You can also use a strength-training app (look for one that includes video demonstrations of each movement). Beginning with body-weight movements is also a great way to start, allowing you to learn the mechanics of each movement before adding additional resistance.
What’s important as a beginner, as indicated in much of the new research on the far-reaching impacts of strength training, is just to start somewhere. Feeling the impact on your well-being outside the gym should provide the motivation to keep going.
Alyssa Ages’s new book, Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength, will be published in September 2023