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The Holy Grail of Exercise?

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

In my role as a personal trainer, I'm often asked what is THE best exercise. The first part of the answer to that question is: the one that you'll do, and keep doing! I like to reframe the second pare of my answer this way: If I were limited to doing just one kind of exercise, it would be strength training. It's a really big bang for your exercise buck, especially if you're short on time for exercise. Plus, it makes you feel great physically and mentally!

The physical benefits are many, and though some are shared with other types of exercise like yoga and cardio, there is nothing like the feeling of doing something you once thought wasn't possible. It is a psychological shot in the arm like no other! Below I've included the evidence based health benefits, as well as the psychological pluses.

Health benefits:

  • Increases muscle mass which helps reduce body fat and maintain a healthy weight: After the age of 30, our muscle mass begins declining. This is a problem, not only for strength, but for our metabolism, which slows down and results in increases in weight and body fat. Building muscle boosts your metabolism because lean tissue burns more calories, even when you're not exercising.

You may be thinking "I don't want to bulk up like a body builder!" No worries! It's actually very difficult to get that look since women don't have the same levels of testosterone as men. Unless you're going to quit your job/your family/things other than training and dedicate every day and everything that goes into your mouth to bodybuilding, you won't end up looking like The Hulk.

  • Improves your balance and posture and lowers injury risk: Strength training with proper form strengthens your postural muscles and creates a demand on balance skills. Besides creating a stressor on our muscles and bones, it also stresses connective tissues, which get stronger, reducing injury risk. It's even been shown to improve walking movement in the elderly, reducing falls. When life literally trips you up, you'll be better prepared.

  • Improves your insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control: Strength training decreases your risk for diabetes and improves these factors for Type II diabetics.

  • Lowers your cardiovascular risk and trims your waistline: While Aerobic exercise is good for your heart, and should be part of an overall exercise plan for health, strength training decreases age related abdominal fat, which is a strong predictor for cardiovascular health.

  • Has a significant positive effect on blood pressure: Blood pressure tends to increase with age, and post menopausal women usually have an increase due to a decrease in estrogen. The issue with blood pressure is that small increases are often asymptomatic. Cardio exercise had long been recommended for improving blood press, but recent studies on strength training (like this and this) show positive effects as well.

  • Shows promise for positive impact on cognitive function: More and more studies are showing a positive impact on the brain and executive function.

  • Reduces stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression: Like other types of exercise, strength training helps relieve stress and can be another way to positively impact your mental health.

  • Shows evidence for improving sleep quality: Sleep is critical for so many reasons. For more tips on getting a good night's sleep, see this.

  • It's good for older adults too: Strength training is not the thing that comes to mind when thinking about exercise as we grow older, but that needs to change if we want to maintain our independence and mobility as we age. If you need guidance on proper form, be sure to seek help from a nationally accredited personal trainer.

Bonus benefits:

  • Increases autonomy: Getting strong is useful for everyday life! Who doesn't want to be able to physically carry out the demands of our lives? Let's face it, we all take some pride in the capacity to take care of ourselves.

  • Makes you feel empowered in a way that carries over to your life: Once you see what you can do in the weight room, your mindset shifts in other areas of your life. Possibilities open up. You view yourself a bit differently.

  • Increases focus and calm: When you're strength training, you need to focus on your form. This gives you a break from all the mental chatter of the world and your own brain. Priceless!

  • Frees you from societal pressures of what women should be/do/look like: Think of it as a way of resisting. Here are some inspiring quotes from women after they started strength training:

“I love that my body is now an ally, instead of being an adversary.

My look is deliberate, not accidental. And it’s the result of striving to be more, instead of wanting to be less.” - Fabienne Marier

"Strength is wildly contagious." - Jen Sinkler

"Strength training allows you to discover and appreciate all that your body is capable of doing—and then do more." - Nia Shanks

If you've never tried it, the idea of strength training can be daunting. No matter how self confident you are in life, it's humbling to learn something new. On top of that learning curve, the weight room is not always the friendliest of environments. You're best bet for a safe & effective start:

  • If you're totally new to lifting weights, learn proper form by hiring an accredited personal trainer. (Observe them working with a client, talk to them, ask them about their education and philosophy on strength training, and Trust.Your.Instincts. Read this.). Over the course of a month or two, you should have a good foundation. All training is built on the same basic movement patterns. If you have a lot of chronic niggles, it may take a bit longer to build this foundation. Hesitating at the cost? Understandable. Looking at this as an investment in your long term health, and an education in what's best for your body. After all, you only get the one body to live in.

  • Let go of expectations and remember, everyone there had a first day in the weight room too.

Best avoided:

  • Mimic the movements of other people who are strength training. What's right for them may not be right for you. Also, some (i.e. many) of them may have poor form. Poor form over time leads to the opposite of what you want from exercise.

  • Learn from a friend who isn't knowledgeable about strength training. He/she may be strong and experienced, but that doesn't mean they can design a safe and effective workout for you. Ditto for YouTube videos. Having a program that balances your body and your capabilities is an art and a science. A trusted source who has the education and experience is a better bet.

So how often should you strength train? Two to three times per week is ideal, but even once a week is good. If you're training 2 or more days, be sure to take an entire day between strength training to let your muscles recover. As you age, (60+) you may need more recovery time.

What if you don't belong to a gym? If you're a beginner, you don't have to strength train at the gym or have a lot of fancy equipment. Dumbbells, super bands, and body weight exercises are a great way to start. An experienced trainer can work with you and the equipment you've got to come up with an effective program. If you've already been there, done that, or need to get away from distractions at home, find a local gym that feels like a good fit for you. Feeling positive support for this new endeavor is key.

Does this mean that I should give up other types of exercise? No! Cardiovascular exercise has loads of benefits.. High intensity interval training has positive effects, including changing cell's DNA to boost the muscle's ability to produce energy. Yoga is great for mindfulness and movement. The ideal: a variety of things you enjoy. Incorporating some strength training into your fitness routine will keep you healthy, fit and grow your confidence.

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