Last night, the instructor of my women's weightlifting class -- let's call her Sarge -- had us use heavy weights to build the muscles in our backs and chests. Picture us, about 10 ordinary middle-aged women, grunting and groaning in an old school gym.
This, my friends, is the new girls' night out.
Why do we do it? It's not for immortality, that's for sure. We're old enough to rule that one out.
No, it's probably some mixture of hope, fear and vanity, layered onto the fact that working out can actually leave one feeling pretty good. Beyond the immediate rewards, though, there are:
Hope that muscle strength and stamina will help us stay independent longer, helping us carry out daily activities in better health. This tactic is central to any personal strategy for aging at home
Fear that being weak will leave us unable to carry our own bags, more likely to fall, more vulnerable to dependending on others.
Vanity about looking good, having good posture, fitting into cute clothes, avoiding "dowager's hump" (a dated term for 'kyphosis'), and being able to dance at weddings.
Whatever the motivation, it's good that we're there lifting weights. I hope our number grows. As you may have heard from the accelerating number of scientific reports on the physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise for aging, purposeful movement works. Like being in love or tops in your field, it's great for your health.
But many of us grew up in an era when cardiovascular activity meant running marathons so we rule out anything less and besides, our knees hurt. (Psst: Walking can be just as good and movement can ultimately reduce the pain of arthritis.) It also seemed that lifting weights was for bulky, high-profile bodybuilders and we don't want to look like that. (Double psst: Women's different hormone mix makes it highly unlikely, plus bodybuilders train to look like that for competition.)
Because it's hard to work backwards from research studies of large numbers of strangers to figure out what appropriate exercise means for our individual lives, I thought it might be good to tie together exercise and what experts call "activities of daily living," so you can see just what difference stamina, strength, and flexibility can make in a full and vital life. My book covers fitness for people fifty-plus in much greater depth, but motivation is central to whether we can take even the best of advice.
For starters, let's look at stamina. Stamina means endurance, the ability of our biological system to do work for a desired or prolonged period of time. Having stamina means you can go for a long walk with others, which in turn enables you to have a long talk and to enjoy socializing and sharing information. Did you realize that both the walking and the talking are good for your health?
Cardiovascular stamina means your heart and lungs function at a high level, allowing you to move and pump oxygen and nutrients efficiently throughout your body for a longer time. This gives you overall higher energy. You can run more errands, visit more friends, work more hours, walk the dog one more time per day, dance more dances, chase more grandkids and sample more exercise classes. Your birthday cake may have more candles, but you're better able to blow them out in one breath.
Muscle stamina means your muscles can do more work over a given period of time. They won't quit on you as quickly. You can take more trips in with the groceries, run up and down the stairs a few more times (holding the rail and wearing non-slip shoes), practice your hobbies, clean and work around the house, take more and longer trips, and get off the tour bus to take more independent excursions.
Building stamina turns out to be easy. You just have to do the same thing for longer and longer periods of time. There is no special art or skill to repetition.
For cardiovascular endurance, just do more. If you walk, walk a little longer every time or throw in short bonus walks when you need a break from harmful sitting. If you swim, add an extra lap. If you dance, add a couple of songs or take two classes a week. Or try two different activities; mix it up. In everyday life, climb another flight of stairs. Park further away from the mall. Carry your own bags; wait longer before you ask for help.
Community-based classes, appropriate to your age and fitness level, that keep you moving provide at least an hour a week of prolonged movement in a structured setting. If you use cardiovascular equipment such as treadmills and elliptical machines, counter boredom a variety of ways such as by reading thrillers (large print or e-readers may be easier), listening to podcasts, or watching absorbing movies and shows to make the time go fast. You can also go to the gym with a companion, which also boosts a sense of accountability -- you make each other show up. Structured activities may give you the shot of energy you need to carry out your stamina-building activities throughout the rest of the week.
For muscle endurance, remember that cardiovascular activity can also strengthen muscles. Ever see a bike rider's calves? Their lungs are just as developed, only less visible. Otherwise, use your muscles as much as possible. Sit up straight. Get up without using the arms of your chair. Carry things yourself. Take the stairs.Do push-ups (floor or wall), learn how to do a proper squat. If you do use weights, add an extra set of "reps" or repetitions. Afraid of bulky muscles? Lift enough weight to stress your muscles (you should feel some resistance) but focus on adding repetitions. And learn how to breathe while using weights; exhale through the exertion. Weight lifting has a cardiovascular component.
Finally, remember mental endurance. It takes mental stamina to get through a workout or exercise class. Every time you go through this type of session and mentally work through any doubt or discomfort, you are building the psychological stamina needed to stay strong for more. That stamina, or mental toughness, will extend through the rest of your life to help you continue to conquer challenging situations.
And it's all in the hope that you can do something as simple as get older where you want to live. If you want to do that tomorrow, take it from Sarge: Do the heavy lifting today.
My next post will connect specific muscle-strengthening exercises to the work those muscles do in everyday life, from shoulders to "abs" and ankles. And we'll talk about the increasing importance of flexibility and balance to aid independent aging.
Why do you exercise -- or what keeps you from exercising? As you get older, what do you find helps keep you motivated and strong? If you're a woman, would you like to learn more about the benefits of lifting weights? And do you feel your medical providers do enough to help you get appropriate exercise?