It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, you need strength training. Both genders lose muscle mass as the years go by and this loss contributes to frailty and poor metabolic health. Research shows we lose muscle mass at a rate of 3 to 8% per decade after the age of 30. Once you reach the age of 60, muscle loss accelerates. As you age, you don’t just lose muscle size, muscle quality declines too, leading to a loss in strength and power. What’s the best treatment for this problem? It’s not an expensive medication but strength training. Unfortunately, men are more likely to strength train than women, but why?
How Muscles Change with Age
Your muscles are made up of two main groups of muscle fibers: fast-twitch fibers and slow-twitch ones. Fast-twitch ones are those that contract with the greatest force, but they also fatigue faster. These are the fibers you recruit when you lift heavy weights. In contrast, slow-twitch fibers are more fatigue resistant, but they don’t contract with as much force.
How do the two fiber types differ? You recruit more slow-twitch fibers when you do moderate-intensity or long-duration exercise like walking or cycling at a low to moderate intensity where your muscles don’t need to generate a lot of force but need endurance. As you age, you lose more fast-twitch muscle fibers relative to slow-twitch ones. That’s why strength training is so important; it helps preserve fast-twitch muscle fibers and, therefore, strength.
If you looked at the muscles of a young person and an older adult with imaging, like an MRI, you’d see the composition of their muscles differs too. Not only does the younger person have more muscle than the older individual, but their muscles also contain less fat relative to an older individual. Why the discrepancy?
As muscle ages, the density of muscle fibers declines but the quantity of fat within the muscle increases. Experts believe the increase in intermuscular fat explains why the muscles of inactive older adults contract with less force. Plus, it may partially explain why insulin resistance becomes more common with age. As the muscle becomes infiltrated with fat, insulin sensitivity declines and the risk of type 2 diabetes goes up.
Form the Habit of Strength Training Early
Knowing how important muscle strength and mass is to health, why are more women reluctant to strength train? A study of college students found that men were more likely to work with weights and do resistance exercises than women. According to Loyola College, women who lift weights may be stigmatized and labeled as “masculine.”
Some women also feel intimidated in the weight training area of college gyms where guys congregate in groups and lift heavy weights. The study showed the number of women who strength train declines as they move through their college years, although they have access to workout areas and gyms with weights and other equipment. Instead, women are more likely to do some form of cardio and shy away from weights.
Why are more college-age women not taking advantage of strength training as a way to feel strong and be mentally and physically healthy? The researchers found women feel self-conscious when in a weight room full of guys lifting weights. They also feel like they lack the skills to do some of the exercises and might do them incorrectly.
However, women who take the plunge and weight train enjoy significant health and fitness benefits including:
- A healthier body composition
- Greater self confidence
- Better bone density
- Greater muscle strength and endurance
- A lower risk of type 2 diabetes and better insulin sensitivity
- Lower risk of mental health issues such as depression
- Lower risk of injury
Also, physical activity of any kind helps boost cognitive function and improve academic performance. A 2013 study found those who strength trained had a higher grade point average.
Just Do It
One way to overcome feelings of self-consciousness is to strength train at home. Your home is your gym, and you can exercise on your schedule. When you work out at home, those feelings of self-consciousness subside, and you can focus on your form and not on who is staring at you or critiquing your squat form. And whether you work out at home or a public facility, learn to tune out distractions. Before starting a workout, go into “focus” mode where you direct your mind toward the task at hand.
Another tip: Keep a fitness journal and have a plan before you start. Always enter a strength training workout with a plan for what exercises you’ll be doing and right down to the number of reps, sets, and exercises. Don’t try to wing it! When you shift your focus toward your training and tune out everything else, you’ll accomplish more and will be less concerned about how you look when you train. When you consider the many benefits of strength training, it’s too important to be self-conscious about it.
The Bottom Line
Strength training is too vital to health and healthy aging not to do it. Yet many women, even young ones, feel intimidated by working with weights in public. Home workouts eliminate this factor, and you may discover you can focus better at home than you can at a health club or gym. But the most important thing is to find what works for you and stick with it. Strength training isn’t a masculine thing, it’s something we all need for health, fitness, and healthy aging.
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