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Strength Training For Women Over 50: Can You Afford Not To?

older man and woman in fitness clothes sitting on groundIf you’re a woman over 50, where will you be a year from now? Are you staying ahead of aging or giving in?

When I walk into a gym I see plenty of men over the age of 50 lifting weights, but it’s much less common to see older women. That’s why when I do see an older woman lifting weights, I have immediate respect for her.

It’s no surprise that women don’t hit the weights like men – it’s only recently that strength training has become more main stream among women. Misconceptions persist, but it’s time to turn the tides on old beliefs and get the word out: Women of all ages belong in the weight room, especially those over 60. The quality of life and health benefits are simply too staggering to overlook.

See how these common misconceptions measure up against the truth:

  • Once muscles get “old” and atrophy, they can’t rebound. Studies have shown that resistance training can benefit adults into their 90’s [1]! Research also confirms that muscles can be strengthened at any age. While muscle loss is a result of aging (a process called sarcopenia), it’s muscle inactivity and injury that are a major factor in muscle loss.
  • Strength training will raise my blood pressure. A study published in October 2010 found that resistance training lowered blood pressure by as much as 20 percent [2]. In general, people who exercise benefit from lower blood pressure (consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise program).
  • Strength training is bad for my joints. When done with proper form in a controlled manner, strength training promotes muscle growth that supports joint functioning. Strength training is often prescribed for rehabilitating joint issues (and a host of others). In fact, patients with rheumatoid arthritis have improved functioning with resistance training [3]. As with other medical conditions, consult your doctor before starting a fitness program.
  • Physical decline is inevitable and just a part of aging. On the contrary, strength training (and any exercise) can slow down the aging process, give you energy, help prevent weight gain, and make day-to-day tasks easier. You’ve probably heard the grim statistic: Falls are the leading cause of injury death among adults aged 65 or older [4]. Falls also cause countless moderate injuries that can limit a person’s ability to live independently. However, strong legs and core muscles can counteract muscle weakness and loss of balance and range of motion that can lead to falls. Did you know that exercise is a proven mood booster of elderly adults and aids sleep [5]? Not only that, but cognitive functioning improves in older women who strength train [6]. And you’ve probably heard that strength training promotes bone health.
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  • To lose weight, all I need is aerobic exercise. Have you noticed how quickly the pounds pile on as you age? Weight gain is not a mysterious, inevitable result of aging but losing muscle is: Between the ages of 20 and 70 we lose about 30 percent of our muscle mass [7]. Losing muscle causes your metabolism to slow down, which contributes to weight gain.From the ages of 20 to 60, the average woman’s body fat jumps from 23 to 44 percent and the average man’s body fat jumps from 18 to 38 percent [8]. Unfortunately, excess weight can mean an increased risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and diabetes, so it’s worth it to fight fat with muscle.

How Can You Get Started?

Now that you understand the benefits – and myths – of strength training, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor. Once you have the go-ahead to start a new fitness program (which should include aerobic exercise as well), choose where you want to strength train: Your home? A recreation center? A gym? How about joining a senior fitness class?

If possible, I highly recommend hiring a personal trainer for a few sessions to learn proper form and avoid risking injury. But if that’s not possible there are many books, classes, and online resources available.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends strength training at least two days a week for 30 minutes per session. Do a gentle warm up of five minutes on an exercise bike or choose another low-impact activity such as walking on a treadmill.

Train all your major muscle groups with exercises such as wall pushups, squats (or wall squats), step ups, bench presses, shoulder presses, and lat pull downs. Repeat each exercise 10 times for two sets, working up to three sets. As you become more conditioned, slowly increase the weight. You should work up a sweat when you’re lifting weights but always use proper form. A final tip: Be sure to eat enough protein to aid muscle growth.

A year from now, I want to be gaining muscle mass instead of losing it. I want to be ahead of the aging game and doing all I can towards health. Are you?

  • http://primefit.org Mary C. Weaver, CSCS

    Suzanne, what a fabulous post! It should be required reading for every woman–not just the over-50s but everyone who hopes to get to 50 (and beyond) with her strength and health intact.

    • Adrian Griffith (

      I believe Mary said it all … the time to start is now, regardless of your age, if your goal is to live a healthy, fruitful, and independent life.

      I think your choice of describing the misconceptions was perfect. These are repeated so often they seem true.

      Great work!

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  • Christy

    I’m confused. You said that once muscles get old and atrophy they can’t rebound, so how does strength training help those muscles????

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Christy, that was actually one of the myths Suzanne disproved.

      • Christy

        Oh! Thank you for the clarification! :)

  • http://www.thrivepersonalfitness.com Pamela Hernandez

    Combating the myths about women and strength training so that the real benefits shine is so important. Anyone woman at any age can and should do some form of resistance training. Great post!

  • http://www.thelighterperspective.com Shira

    Great post, Suzanne! I didn’t fully embrace strength training until after I turned 40 and its been the best thing I’ve done for my body ever since, keeping my body and mind in a great place. :)