Exercise is great for our health. Yet, different types of exercise provide different benefits. Aerobic exercise (longer duration, lower intensity) is great for losing weight, and promoting our respiratory and vascular systems. Anaerobic exercise (shorter duration, higher intensity), is great for building strength, balance, bone density, as well as revving up our metabolism. Most people overlook anaerobic exercise and as a result, miss out on its benefits.
Weight lifting is a form of anaerobic exercise with numerous health perks. Although the thought of lifting weights may be intimidating for a beginner, know that you can lift weights without grunting, mirror-admiring, or using the word “bro”. Stereotypes aside, here are three reasons everyone should start lifting weights, as well as some tips to help you get started.
- Healthy Bones: One thing I randomly memorized from college physiology, is something called Wolff’s Law. Wolff’s Law states that human bones will adapt to the load under which they are placed. If that load increases, the bone will remodel itself over time and become stronger. Regular weight lifting increases the load placed on our bones, causing them to adapt and become stronger. If, however, our bones are under little or no stress, they breakdown and become weak. Astronauts in space are a perfect example of this. A lack of gravity minimizes the load placed on their bones, which begin to breakdown and weaken, a condition called “disuse osteoporosis” (1). Bone is a dynamic tissue that’s constantly breaking down and rebuilding. If you don’t use it, you (literally) lose it. Including regular weight training into your life will help keep your bones active and strong.
- A (slightly) Better Metabolism: Muscle is a metabolically-active tissue (it burns calories), even at rest. Weight training stimulates muscle growth, and since more muscle equals more calories burned at rest, it can increase your metabolism. This concept, while accurate, is often exaggerated. Skeletal muscle only constitutes about 20% of our basal metabolic rate, so increasing muscle size will only slightly boost the amount of energy you burn at rest. This, however, can still be significant over the long-term, especially as we get older and gradually begin to lose muscle.
- Improved Strength and Balance: Sarcopenia is a fancy science word used to describe the age-related, involuntary loss of muscle mass and strength. This process may begin as early as the 4th decade of life, and its prevalence increases with age (2). Physical inactivity is probably the most important contributing factor (3). Similar to bone, muscle is another use-it-or-lose-it tissue. Inactivity leads to muscle loss, while regular exercise, specifically weight training, preserves muscle mass and function, keeping sarcopenia at bay. The importance of adequate muscle function and good balance is often overlooked when we’re young, but these are major issues in older populations. I remember seeing the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” infomercials from Life Alert on TV and thinking “How many of these do they sell? People aren’t just falling over all the time.” However, after working in a hospital setting for six years, it’s become quite apparent that, yes, people fall, a lot. Falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries and hip fractures, with muscle weakness and poor balance often playing a role. Weight training on a regular basis will help to keep you mobile and active as you age.
Regular weight lifting will keep your bones strong, metabolism humming, and body upright. Plus, you gain all the other benefits of regular exercise: reduced stress, elevated mood, lower risk of chronic disease, etc. If lifting weights is totally new for you, try a beginner class that includes weights, partner up with a more experienced friend, or consider a personal trainer. If you’re not a gym member, try some online workouts (there are tons on YouTube). Search for ones that emphasize resistance training. If you are a member at a gym, start with the assisted machines (don’t be afraid to ask how they work), or some light free weights. You can also try body weight exercise, such as squats, lunges, and push-ups.
For beginners, lifting weights 2-3 times per week is a good start. You can alternate days between upper and lower body exercise. Here are some good exercises to start with:
- Upper Body:
- Chest press (machine, free weights, or push-ups)
- Shoulder press (machine or free weights)
- Seated cable rows
- Lower Body:
- Squats (body weight or with a weighted barbell)
- Lunges (body weight or with a weighted barbell)
- Side steps (body weight or with a resistance band)
If you’re using weights, always start low and work your way up. You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. Also, keep form a top priority. If an exercise is new for you, there are tons of online videos that demonstrate proper form, or you can utilize a personal trainer.
You don’t have to become a gym rat to reap the benefits of weight lifting. Incorporating a few upper and lower body exercises into your weekly routine is a great investment towards your long-term health. And while you may notice some positive changes on the outside, know that you’re definitely improving your health on the inside.