Exercising with weights can come in different forms, whether using your own bodyweight (e.g., pushups), dumbbells, barbells, selectorized weight machines (common in commercial gyms), pulley machines, or by other means. Now, not everyone has a desire to exercise with weights, and many people may prefer other fitness modalities, including sports, yoga or leisure activities, e.g., walking, bowling, hiking.
There is nothing wrong with being fit by doing activities other than weight training, but you must consider what your objectives are, in being healthy, functional and aging well, as opposed to simply adopting a fitness lifestyle in general and without considering the potential and limitations of what you chose to do to achieve those goals.
The benefit and overall effect of weight training exceeds any other type of exercise. This is not to suggest that other activities, such as swimming, cannot produce results or that it does not offer something that weight training does not. On the contrary, although a brisk walking program or playing a game of tennis can have their own advantages or use, the myriad of effects on the body cannot be compared to weight training, which is what most people should consider – the biggest bang for the buck!
Weight training obviously improves strength and the building (or maintenance as you age) of muscle mass. Both of these factors are vital as we grow older, as we require strength to carry groceries from the car, to climb stairs more easily, lift yourself off the toilet or a chair, etc., and all these simply daily activities become more challenging with each ensuing decade.
Flexibility increases with weight training, since the muscles and joints are under a load, and as you lift a weight up and down, from stretch to contraction. This not only maintains and improves flexibility, but you gain strength throughout that range-of-motion, which cannot be done as effectively with any other means of exercise. Yes, basic stretching improves flexibility, as does yoga, but there are some caveats. Regularly stretching does not increase strength, a vital commodity for anyone who enjoys mobility, function and quality of life.
And if we consider yoga, some degree of strength will result with flexibility, although to a reduced extent compared to weight training. Yoga also requires a certain degree of balance and coordination, elements of both skill (it takes time to keep from tipping over or feeling awkward) and strength to maintain body positioning. If you find you lack those aspects in yoga, weight training will both improve and better prepare any newbies interested in exploring yoga.
Moreover, yoga is not an activity to be taken lightly, as effective (hyper) flexibility of the joints and accomplishment of the discipline (lifestyle!) is served best when starting from infancy – which is how it’s done in India. As a caution, it is not uncommon for average people taking up yoga to experience hip pain, and this is due to nerve impingement in the hip, from excessive stretching or attempting to adjust one’s self in certain yoga positions.
Weight training has many other benefits, whether speaking of reduced blood pressure, improved blood cell count, stamina and muscular endurance, etc. However, one element that many consider ‘missing’ with a weight training program is the effect on the cardiovascular system. This is a false condemnation. To explain, weight training is considered ‘anaerobic’ exercise, which means ‘without oxygen,’ as opposed to aerobic (with oxygen) exercise – e.g., jogging or going on a treadmill).
Now, this is true in one respect, in that when you perform a weight training exercise, such as dumbbell curls, the biceps muscles in the upper arms eventually fatigue and you cannot perform any further repetitions – this is because the body cannot keep up with supply energy (including oxygen) to the biceps and the muscle have to stop exercising. You then take a short break before doing more biceps exercise, or you move onto a different exercise for a different body part. However, what most people don’t realize is that rests between ‘sets’ of exercise can be very brief or almost nonexistent, so that you are training hard, but moving continuously to keep the heart and lungs working.
The cardiovascular effect from weight training can be as noticeable as gains in strength, lean muscle and flexibility. For instance, performing leg exercises, such as squatting or a leg press, can increase your heart rate to a higher degree than jogging. It may last only a few minutes, but the beats-per-minute certainly elevate; and if you rest very briefly or not at all between exercises, you can maintain that heart rate, that heavy breathing and benefit your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
This was proven in 1975 with the West Point Study (conducted at the US Military’s West Point Academy). They had one group of cadets perform a series of 15-20 weight training exercises with no rests (only enough time to move from one exercise to the next) and no other type of exercise. The other group performed regular weight training (60-90 seconds rests between exercises), but also performed regular running/jogging work, e.g., 2-mile runs.
The first group not only did as well in gaining strength, but after one month of continuous-style weight training (with no rests between exercises), they also performed better with faster times in the 2-mile run, then did the second group who weight trained and ran!
All of this should be encouraging for those who may consider weight training, who want to make certain they are doing the best type of exercise, in order to age well, but there will be some hesitancy. Yes, it takes a few weeks to get used to exercise movements, to think about the body part you are training (that mental focus to connect mind to muscle), to feel the exercises effectively and to know what you’re doing; but this is no different than any other physical activity, and it’s far safer.
Yes, it’s safer, since many activities involved impact forces that can cause damage to joints and tissues (sports and jogging are obvious examples), and with weight training, you always start off light and never use a weight that exceeds good form – YOU are in charge of how hard you want to work and with what weights, whether one-pound dumbbells or leg pressing 200 pounds.
And for women who are afraid of building too much muscle, here are some considerations. First, women do not have the same potential to build muscle, and even those with good genetics to build muscle, it’s always far less than what a man could build.
Second, if you build too much muscle, overall or in a particular body part, simply reduce the weights or do not train as hard – the muscle will shrink (atrophy) since the exercise ‘demands’ are less than what they were. A simple fix. Third, everyone, including women, should try to build as much muscle and strength as possible, since both slowly fade away as we age.
If we can maximize our muscle and strength potential, we will maintain a lot more and lose far less as we age. And this is what exercise, particularly with weights, is all about – building, maintaining and slowing the loss of our bodies’ function – so that we can age well, with dignity and with fewer health issues.