Elizabeth Kelly, RN, didn’t set out to be a competitive power lifter. But after the Labor and Delivery nurse at Kaiser Permanente Roseville stumbled upon some strength and conditioning classes about 6 years ago, she found she loved the strength training.
She started lifting weights more intensively, found coaching through the online service Barbell Medicine, and began competing with an organization called Starting Strength. In January of this year, she won the overall female Best Lifter title at the U.S. Strengthlifting Federation’s national competition.
“I was proud of myself, and it was really special to me because Starting Strength is all about helping people, both young and old, to benefit from barbell training,” Kelly said.
Maintaining Muscle as You Age
Kelly’s accomplishments are impressive, but she knows that women and men of all ages who lift weights at a more modest level can also benefit greatly.
“Strength training increases bone density and overall strength, which decreases falls and injuries in the elderly. There’s also evidence that it’s beneficial in preventing and managing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis,” she said. “It’s helped me to avoid injuries on the job, and it’s been a critical part of me being strong and confident in my mind and body.”
Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa physical therapist Jennie Smallcomb, DPT, said research shows we lose 3 to 8 percent of our muscle mass per decade starting in our 30s. Strength training is one way to counterbalance that, no matter how old you are.
“The key is to overload the muscle and make it tired, so that the last repetition you do is so hard you can barely complete it,” Smallcomb said. “As you slowly increase the amount of weight you lift over time, the body adapts by putting on muscle and increasing your strength.”
Improving Balance, Increasing Metabolism, and More
Smallcomb explained that strength training also improves balance, which can reduce your risk of falls as you age. It increases your metabolic rate, too, so you burn calories at a higher rate, even after you exercise. And it increases muscle definition.
Some women are concerned that lifting weights will make them look bulky, but Smallcomb said that’s unlikely.
“Men can put on muscle relatively quickly because they have higher testosterone levels, but it takes longer for women,” she said. “Also, if you increase muscle you’re also likely to decrease fat, which takes up more volume per pound than muscle.”
How much time does a strength training program take? Smallcomb recommends 3 sessions a week for 30 to 40 minutes a session, including warm-up and cooldown.
“If you can, it’s worth the time and money to work with a personal trainer, so you can learn proper technique and feel more comfortable with a strength-training program,” she said.
For those who can’t make it to the gym, other options include using your own body weight to train (think pushups, pullups, and lunges), or using resistance bands or dumbbells at home.
Most People Could Benefit
Smallcomb started lifting weights herself and participating in bodybuilding competitions a few years ago.
“I would have never have believed how much better I feel because of the strength training,” she said. “I stand taller now, my clothes fit better, and it’s given me a confidence that has transferred to other parts of my life.”
Kelly said her parents, who are in their 70s, are now strength training, and she believes most people could benefit too.
“I want to challenge the misconception that lifting weights is only for young men,” she said. “I want to be a positive role model and encourage everyone, especially women, to make strength training a priority.”
If you’re interested in seeing strength training in action, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a series of videos designed to help you get started at home or at a gym.