Mary calls it strength training. At age 48 she discovered how important this was during physical rehabilitation after surgery following a bad fall. Her doctor said her broken bones were most likely due to post-menopausal osteoporosis.

Robert calls it resistance training and he discovered it at age 78 after a stroke had weakened the right side of his body. He credits resistance training with being able to walk again without a cane. He also believes it is what pulled him out of months of depression following his stroke. Intense resistance training increases the amount of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine the body naturally produces, which improve mood and reduce depression.

For Joe, weightlifting was his path to a normal weight. At age 38, he finally decided to deal with a lifetime of obesity and take charge of his 342-pound body. Joe hated to exercise but because he had enjoyed lifting weights in high school gym classes, he turned to weightlifting to lose weight.

Mary’s strength training, Robert’s resistance training and Joe’s weightlifting are different names for the same type of exercise that strengthens muscles, bones and improves flexibility. Resistance exercises are good for the whole body because it helps to:

  • Tone and strengthen muscles
  • Build joint support by strengthening tendons and ligaments
  • Prevent osteoporosis and rebuild bones that are weakened by osteoporosis
  • Repair and grow tissue
  • Maintain a healthy metabolism
  • Improve heart-lung function
  • Improve balance to prevent falls
  • Improve mood
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Improve posture
  • Help maintain a healthy weight

Strength or resistance training means using the resistance from the weight of a dumbbell (free weights), the pull of a stretch band (elastic bands that you flex using your arms or legs) or your own body’s weight (such as pushups or lunges that use body weight to create resistance against gravity) to contract muscles. The contractions build muscles’ strength, size and endurance. It is the pulling on the muscles, tendons and joints during resistance exercises that also helps bones rebuild themselves (called remodeling), thus helping to prevent debilitating osteoporosis.

Four types of exercise

Resistance exercises are one of four essential types of exercise that everyone needs for overall fitness and health. While each type of exercise targets a different type of movement that our bodies need, the benefits overlap.

  • Resistance exercises can be done daily if you alternate the days you exercise your three major muscle groups: arms/shoulders, core/back and hips/legs. Experts recommend a minimum of two times a week, for 15 to 20 minutes, for resistance exercises. Toni Naramore, AFMC’s wellness leader and certified personal trainer, recommends pairing a couple of the major muscle groups together. For example, pair legs and shoulders one day, chest and back the next day, and then arms and core. She says, “This allows one group of muscles to rest while you work another set. This method makes it safer to do a resistance workout every day.”
  • Aerobic or endurance exercises build and maintain heart and lung capacity by moving your large muscle groups. It makes you breathe harder and your heart beat harder, thus strengthening your heart muscle. Examples include walking or running, swimming, biking, dancing, stair-climbing and active sports. Most people need a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, to gain health benefits.
  • Balance and stability exercises can include balancing on one leg, or movement-based routines such as Tai chi or yoga. Any slow, controlled movement or routine will help. These activities are essential to prevent falls and can be done daily. Try to do them at least twice a week.
  • Flexibility exercises stretch and lengthen your muscles to keep them limber and improve joint flexibility. Flexibility exercises move your joints through the full range of motion they were designed to achieve. These exercises also keep muscles working well to maintain the strength and flexibility you need to accomplish daily activities. Examples include tai chi, yoga, Pilates, water exercises or any gentle, slow stretching. Flexibility exercises are most effective after your muscles are warmed up, such as following an aerobic or resistance activity. Include flexibility stretches at the end of every workout. Try to do them every day.

Osteoporosis treatment

For Mary, resistance exercises have become an essential part of her osteoporosis treatment. Osteoporosis is a major cause of disability in older women, and a smaller percentage of men. If bones do not rebuild themselves continuously, they become weak, increasing the risk of broken bones. Hip and spine fractures can severely impair mobility and the ability to live independently as you age.

If Mary had started weight-bearing exercises well before menopause, she might have avoided the broken bones that sent her to surgery, followed by six weeks of rehab. Contracting a muscle releases a substance within the body that builds bones, promotes new tissue growth, and strengthens tendons and ligaments. Stronger muscles do a better job supporting and protecting joints that are affected by arthritis.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that people with osteoporosis have a bone density measurement and a fitness assessment from their doctor before starting any exercise program to help treat osteoporosis.

A physical therapist or personal trainer with experience working with osteoporosis patients can help you develop strength-training routines.

Arthritis treatment

In addition to his physical recovery from the stroke and help with mental depression, Robert also found that resistance training helped the arthritis in his hips and knees. Studies have demonstrated that older people and those who are physically frail can regain functional strength by doing resistance exercises.

The Arthritis Foundation (AF) considers a well-rounded exercise program to be the most effective nondrug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement in patients with osteoarthritis. AF says regular exercise therapy can help people with mild to moderate hip osteoarthritis, and with tolerable pain, avoid or delay the need for total hip replacement surgery. A six-year study showed that people who participated in an exercise program for one hour at least twice a week for 12 weeks were 44 percent less likely to need hip replacement surgery six years later, compared with a similar group of people who did not exercise. Also, the exercise group reported improved flexibility and ability to perform physical activities compared with nonexercisers. Visit this link for several arthritis-friendly exercise routines.

Weight loss and muscle toning

For Joe’s weight-loss program, he chose a variety of activities to keep from getting bored. He started working out in his neighborhood gym three times a week with dumbbells. He gradually increased the weight as he reached rep maximum (RM). A rep is one repetition of lifting and lowering a weight (or doing an exercise like a pushup) in a controlled manner. The RM is the number of reps you can perform at a certain weight. When you reach RM with a specific weight, it’s time to increase the weight or resistance to maintain muscle strength or continue building strength.

By starting slow and gradually increasing the amount of weight and number of reps, Joe avoided injury. This is especially important for people who are very overweight. As he began to lose weight, he increased the time spent in more active exercise. He learned that building up from a slow walk on a treadmill to a jog would burn about 500-600 calories an hour. On the elliptical trainer he burns about 400 calories an hour. Eventually Joe felt confident enough about his body and his stamina to swim laps and go hiking with friends – both activities burning about 400-450 calories per hour.

Beginning at around age 30, we lose about 25 percent of our muscle strength by age 70; half of it by age 90. Dr. Robert Schreiber, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, says aerobic exercise is not enough. “Unless you are doing strength training, you will become weaker and less functional,” as you age.

Get your doctor’s OK

Always check with your doctor before beginning any activity that’s new to your body. Discuss your specific health issues and what exercises and activities are safe for you. Your doctor can help you set realistic goals to regain your health.

A certified personal trainer or coach (be sure to verify their actual training and certification before asking their advice!) can help you achieve your goals much faster, help keep you motivated and prevent injuries. A trainer or coach will teach you the correct way to do each exercise and continually observe that you continue to do them correctly. Using correct form with every rep is important because it prevents injury. Your trainer will tell you when to increase the weight or number of reps. If a muscle is not overloaded it will not gain in strength.

Here’s what the American College of Sports Medicine recommends:

  • Eight to 12 repetitions of a resistance exercise for each major muscle group at an intensity of 40 to 80 percent of a one-repetition maximum (RM).
  • Two to three minutes of rest is recommended between exercise sets to allow for proper recovery.
  • Two to four sets are recommended for each muscle group. A set is several repetitions of an exercise performed with no break between them. For example, four sets of 12 repetitions per set means you would do one exercise a total of 48 times, resting briefly only after each group of 12 reps.

It’s never too late to take up resistance exercises to improve your health and prevent injury.