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How strength training benefits women of all ages

Both men and women benefit from stronger muscles. However, women generally have less muscle mass than men to begin with so they’re at a greater disadvantage when they begin losing muscle at midlife. This gradual muscle loss not only contributes to frailty as women get older, it also slows down metabolism, contributing to middle-aged spread. So let’s look at some of the reasons women should include regular strength training sessions as part of their fitness routines.

What are the advantages of strength training for women?

Regular strength training has benefits for everyone. Strength training not only helps to reduce the risk of arthritis and diabetes as well as reducing symptoms of depression, it can also help improve balance, strength and flexibility. Strength training can also help women lose excess fat (or avoid gaining it), especially when it’s combined with regular aerobic or ‘cardio’ exercise such as walking, cycling and jogging.

Although both men and women can develop the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis, women have a higher risk — around the world, one in three women are affected by osteoporosis while only one in five men will be affected. But strength training can help to keep bones strong. Research shows that postmenopausal women who did strength training regularly over two years had, even 10 years after the fact, stronger muscles and bones compared with postmenopausal women who did not do the exercise.

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How can strength training help me lose fat?

The more muscle you have, the more kilojoules you burn — and the easier it is to stay at a healthy weight. This is because muscle is active tissue that burns kilojoules even while you’re sitting. This helps increase the basal metabolic rate (BMR) — the rate at which the body burns kilojoules while at rest.

But as people lose muscle with age, their BMR slows down. This means you may be burning fewer kilojoules at 50 than you did at 30. This explains why some women gain weight in middle age even though their eating habits haven’t changed. But by maintaining or building more muscle through regular strength training, you can counteract the effects of your metabolic rate slowing down, especially when your strength training is combined with regular ‘cardio’ exercise like walking, cycling or jogging.

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How does strength training help to keep bones strong?

In your mid-30s your bones start to change. Instead of continuing to build bone, you start to gradually lose it. Between the mid-30s and menopause, women’s bone density decreases by about half to one percent each year. This bone loss becomes more rapid after menopause. In the first three years after menopause women can lose two percent of bone mass each year. Strength training helps counteract this process by stimulating bone growth.

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Will strength training give me bulky muscles?

One of the biggest misconceptions about strength training is that women end up with bulging muscles from lifting weights. But because women generally produce far less of the hormone testosterone (about one tenth of the amount produced by men), they don’t have enough of this hormone to develop large muscles.

It’s also important not to confuse strength training with body building. Body building is more about creating exaggerated muscle definition, using special diets and intense training. This is very different to the effects of two to three regular strength training sessions a week at the gym. The latter will help tone, define and strengthen your muscles.

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Will muscle turn to fat if I stop strength training?

No. Muscle and fat are completely different types of body tissue. As muscles are worked, they tend to become leaner and harder as they grow stronger. This can help to shed centimetres and fat. If you stop strength training you’ll gradually lose some of this muscle and you may eventually find that you’ve gained fat. But this is because you’re burning fewer kilojoules, not because your muscles are turning to fat.

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If muscle weighs more than fat, could strength training make me gain weight?

Although muscle is denser and heavier than fat it also takes up less space than fat. This explains why women who combine weight training with aerobic exercise and a healthy diet often find that although they are slimmer — and have lost centimetres — they may have lost little or no weight.

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Further information

Osteoporosis Australia: Preventing Osteoporosis with Exercise
www.osteoporosis.org.au/

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Sources

Dolezal BA Potteiger JA. Concurrent resistance and endurance training influence BMR in non-dieting individuals. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1998; 85: 695-700.

Go for your life. Strength training is for over 50s too. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Department of Human Services. 2008 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from:
http://www.goforyourlife.vic.gov.au/hav/admin.nsf/Images/Strength_training_for_Over_50s.pdf/$File/Strength_training_for_Over_50s.pdf (PDF, 1.0Mb)

Minne HW. Invest in your bones — make it or break it. [online] Nyon, Switzerland: International Osteoporosis Foundation. 2005. [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.osteoporosis.org.au/

Sinaki M Itoi E Wahner HW et al. Stronger back muscles reduce the incidence of vertebral fractures: a prospective 10 year follow-up of postmenopausal women. Bone. 2002; 30(6): 836–841.

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010