It started when I was visiting my younger brother at my parents’ house last summer. He’s in the Air Force and had just returned from a six-month deployment in the Middle East. When he wasn’t working, he had few distractions with which to entertain himself, so he turned to working out. He looked great—more muscular and toned than I’d ever seen him.
As a health writer, I’ve been interested in strength training for awhile now. I’ve studied the research, and I know how good it is for you, particularly as you age, to keep your muscles strong. I’d been doing some push-ups, squats, and leg lifts, but I had come to a plateau and needed something else.
That’s when my brother promptly produced a 15-pound weight that had been stashed in our other brother’s closet. After making sure neither of them would miss it, I took it home. Since then, I’ve bought a twenty, and a twenty-five, and a thirty, and now I’m just about to the place where I need the thirty-five.
Why should all this matter to you? Because I now know from both research and experience—lifting weights is one of the best things women can do for themselves. Not only does it provide a number of health benefits, including reducing body fat and the risk of osteoporosis, but it actually changes your attitude, too.
Want to feel more confident? Boost your self-esteem? Sharpen your mental skills?
Here’s why you need to start pumping the iron. Today!
5 Health Benefits of Strength Training for Women
Women have traditionally shied away from lifting weights, afraid they’d look too “bulky” and lose their refined, curvy appearance.
Researchers confirmed this bias in a 2010. They examined data from four studies, and found that women were concerned about what others would think of them if they lifted weights, and feared those opinions would be negative.
In a later 2013 paper, researchers noted that traditional gender roles can present a barrier between women and weight lifting, as women seek to mold their bodies to what they believe are culturally acceptable shapes. Previous studies show that women want to be skinny, not muscular, and that some fear getting too big or powerful and appearing “unfeminine.”
As word gets out about the many benefits of weight training, however, some of these stereotypes are fading. Here are the reasons why more women are lifting weights—and why you should consider doing so, too!
1. You’ll Lose Fat While Gaining Muscle
You may have heard that the more muscle you have, the more energy you burn. That means that your body is more likely to turn those calories into energy rather than fat.
What woman doesn’t want that?
Studies show that when women lift weight, they often lose more fat than they gain in muscle, anyway. Part of the reason is that they have lower levels of anabolic hormones than men have, and it’s these hormones that are key to building larger muscles.
On top of that, weight training is helpful when you want to burn fat—particularly belly fat. A 2014 Harvard study found that 20 minutes of daily training resulted in less age-related abdominal fat than the same amount of time doing aerobic exercise.
Another similar study found that premenopausal women who did twice-weekly weight training were able to prevent age-related belly fat better than women who didn’t do the training.
“With weight training you’re going to gain lean body weight and that is going to make metabolism go up,” Ron DeAngelo, director of Sports Performance Training at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told Today. “So consequently your engine gets bigger and you burn more calories even when you are at rest.”
2. You’ll Reduce Risk of Osteoporosis
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) states that about 10 million people in the U.S. are affected by osteoporosis, and 18 million more are at risk of developing it. Eighty percent of those are women.
This disease is really dangerous, as a single fracture can change a woman’s life for good. Seventy percent of those suffering fractures from osteoporosis do not return to pre-injury status.
Strength straining increases bone mineral density, reducing your risk of osteoporosis and fractures. In a 1999 study, high-intensity resistance training improved strength and balance and increased muscle mass, while also increasing bone density.
A later 2011 study found similar results, with participants participating in strength training experiencing increases in bone density. Regular weight training also helped avert spinal bone loss in postmenopausal women, and slowed bone loss in the hips.
3. You’ll Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease and Diabetes
Heart disease is the number-one killer of women, and diabetes is on the rise. Strength training can help you reduce your risk of both.
In a 2010 study, researchers found that resistance training like lifting weights produced a different pattern of blood vessel responses than aerobic exercise did, actually resulting in greater increases in blood flow to the limbs. It also produced a more lasting drop in blood pressure after exercise than aerobic exercise did. Both of these results benefit cardiovascular health.
Studies also show that strength training can help control blood sugar levels by actually pulling glucose from the bloodstream to power up the muscles. In one study, those who did at least 150 minutes of strength training a week cut their risk of type 2 diabetes by about 34 percent.
4. You’ll Feel Less Pain
You’d think that lifting weights would cause you pain, not relieve it, but studies show that resistance training can help ease all sorts of pain, including neck and back pain and even fibromyalgia.
In a 2006 study, for example, researchers evaluated women with chronic neck pain, and found that as the participants strengthened their necks in resistance training groups, their pain diminished, and that the change in neck pain and disability correlated with neck strength. In other words, the stronger they got, the less pain they experienced.
A later 2014 study found similar results for participants with fibromyalgia. They found that those who did resistance training rated their well being 25 units better after 16 to 21 weeks, while those who didn’t do the training rated their well being only 8 units better. Women who did the training also rated their ability to do normal activities better by 8 units, while women who didn’t rated their ability only 2 units better.
Women who lifted weights also had 4 fewer tender points compared to only 2 fewer for those who didn’t. And of course, these women got stronger, too.
Other studies have shown that strength training works for back pain and arthritis. Harvard researchers state that weight training helps support and protect joints, and also helps ease pain, stiffness, and swelling.
5. You’ll Have More Energy
What woman doesn’t need more energy these days?
Most of us feel like we’re constantly running and have little time to relax. Gradually, we can come to feel chronically fatigued, moving about our days in a half-daze.
Sleep is critical for feeling more energetic, and lifting weights can help. One study reported that resistance exercise improved sleep quality, and even made it easier for those with osteoporosis, anxiety, and depression to fall asleep more easily.
A second study on participants who were suffering from depression found that weight training three times a week improved sleep quality and symptoms of depression.
Weight Training Also Boosts Mood, Mental Confidence, and Self-Esteem
All the benefits listed above are reasons enough to get started on your own weight-training program.
But as they say—wait, there’s more!
For women, the real benefit of lifting weights may be how it makes us feel. I know that I walk a little taller with the new strength in my arms and shoulders.
I’m not the only one. In a report by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), scientists state that strength training not only reduces the effects of arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and back pain, but can have a major effect on a person’s mental and emotional health.
“Strength training exercises can also reduce depression and boost self-confidence and self-esteem,” the authors wrote, “and improve your sense of well-being.”
Other studies have found that physical strength encourages mental strength. In the late 90s, for example, researchers found that strength training increased overall muscle strength by nearly 40 percent, while also improving mood, reducing anxiety, and boosting confidence.
In other research, 12 weeks of strength training in adolescent girls improved confidence and general effectiveness in life.
“These findings offer preliminary support that weight training for strength can improve confidence about a variety of life tasks in adolescent girls,” the researchers wrote, “and could provide the basis for new modalities of therapy for low self-esteem.”
We’re also learning more about how what’s good for the body is good for the brain. You may have heard that regular exercise not only protects your heart, but can protect your brain from dementia, as well.
Weight training fits that profile. In a 2015 study, one group of participants who already had mild cognitive impairment went through six months of weight training. The other group did not. Those who trained experienced significant improvements in overall cognitive function, specifically in abilities like planning, organizing, devising strategies, and visual memory. The improvements were still there twelve months after the training stopped.
“We know weight training stimulates hormones that make muscles grow and it’s possible these hormones are also having similar benefits for brain function,” said Professor Fiatarone Singh.
How to Get Started
Trust me. When you get started, you’ll become addicted. You’ll be able to see your progress (in your muscles!) and feel the improvements, which can be very motivating.
Don’t worry—you don’t have to buy a membership to the gym or invest your life savings in weight lifting equipment. You can start with a few dumbbells like I did, along with some exercise bands, and start building your muscles today.
Here are some tips to get you going:
- Start small—don’t overexert.
- The idea is to exhaust the muscle, so go for a maximum of 5-10 reps. If you can do more than that, go to the next heavier weight.
- Always rest in between workouts—do them every other day, or every third day.
- Dumbbells are the easiest to begin with, and can be used in your own home. For guidelines on basic dumbbells exercises, check out this article in Shape Magazine.
- Once you get going, consider using an online or DVD program, or sign up for some training at the gym to be sure you’re performing your exercises with the right form.