Time for a change from the social criticism.
One thing that I want to be sure to present in this blog is a positive focus on health that does not have weight reduction as the primary goal. Our social obsession with Teh Fatz overwhelms the information about more general health concerns, especially for women. Health measures that do not also promote weight loss are not perceived as valuable because, well, you’re still faaaattttt.
So, I’m going to talk about stuff I’ve done and am doing to make myself healthier, without reference to weight reduction. I talked about my health objectives in A Call to Action. Here’s what I do for resistance training.
Everything I could read on older women’s health and the topic of bone density seemed pretty much in agreement that the key to strong bones was performing load bearing exercises and that weight lifting was the most effective way to do this. However, most weight lifting materials were aimed squarely at 20-something men looking to get ripped (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and, if they talked about lifting for women, it was mostly to reassure younger women that lifting won’t make them “bulky.” (And it won’t. So have fun!)
I found out about a program called Strong Women Stay Young, which sounded a little too slick and well-marketed, but which is aimed at older women. I checked out the book of the same name and found that it was quite good despite the Madison Avenue gloss. There was medical research done in a responsible way that didn’t make outrageous claims, there was some very solid information about what the lifting was intended to do, with a reassuring emphasis on safety. Finally, there was a set of simple, well explained and well illustrated resistance exercises that could be done with free weights or gym machines, at home or at a gym. It was very non-fitness in its presentation, which made it easier to understand.
So, I bought a set of hand weights and leg weights and began following the 12 week program. It was easy to do, easy to chart, and easy to increase difficulty as I became stronger. The initial 12 week program has you do the full set of upper and lower body exercises twice per week, with two sets of 8 repetitions. This provided a good entry into weight lifting, demystified the activity, and got me ready to take on more challenging lifting.
After I’d “outgrown” SWSY, I graduated to my next instruction guide, Weight Lifting for Dummies. Yes, I am unashamed to say that I used that book. It’s fun! It was written by two women, it’s oriented to ordinary people trying to get some reasonable lifting into their lives, and it has photos of people of a wide mix of age, race, sex and physical ability. They all look pretty healthy and none of them look like a gym rat. The book is organized around different exercises to do for your major muscle groups, and has good explanations of what effect this or that lift will have. It also puts safety first, emphasizes good form, and blows up a bunch of lifting myths.
Now, if I want to find out about new lifts I can do, or want to know more about dos and don’ts, I go online to Scooby’s Workshop, a treasure trove of common sense and helpful examples from ‘Scooby’, a 50-something engineer, body builder and fitness guy who really, honestly wants people to be healthy and feel good about themselves. He debunks myths, has videos to show good form, and rejects the fads and snake oil that plague the “fitness” industry. He has a fun blog he posts to on a fairly regular basis. He pays attention to the different workout goals, needs and challenges of older lifters, which is really nice.
Over the course of the last 3+ years, I’ve slowly but persistently increased my strength. I don’t always do it consistently, especially when work gets frantic, and so my muscles can lose some strength, but I know I can just back off the weight levels, and rebuild what went away. When I can, I lift free weights four times per week.
- Monday – Upper body lifts.
- Tuesday – Lower body and back
- Wednesday – Rest day!
- Thursday – Upper body
- Friday – Lower body and back
Each workout has 8 distinct lifts or exercises. Each exercise is done three times, with 8 repetitions. Depending on how much time I take to rest, zone out, mess with weights, etc., the workouts take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. When working my upper body, I always do pushups and bicep curls. When working my lower body, I always do bicycle crunches (easier than any other kind for me), assisted squats, leg extensions and side hip raises. The lower body sessions focus more on flexibility and balance than strength since I do so much on my feet already.
When I lift depends on whether I’m working and what my schedule is. If I’m not in the office, I work out early in morning and get it done. If I have an early work day, I do this after work and before dinner. If I have a late day, it gets done after dinner. Or not at all. If I skip a workout one day, like I missed doing my upper body session this last Monday, I may just do a double session and take an hour to do upper and lower the same day, as I did on Tuesday. Or I might just do some bicep curls and say “Done.” I’m very much into not letting a fitness “regimen” make me live a regimented life. My goal is to work each major muscle group at least once a week, and preferably twice.
In terms of equipment, I have the original weight set I bought (5, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20 pound dumbbell sets, plus a 20 pound leg weight pair), a workout mat, a medium strength resistance band with handles, and a simple weight bench with an adjustable tilt back. We also inherited a 6′ straight weight bar, 2 dumbbell bars, and a set of weight plates, left behind by a previous tenant at an apartment we rented. Finally, last month I bought a 4′ curling bar. The SU has created some pushup stands and bolted a pull up bar to a beam down in the basement, though I don’t make use of either of those.
I don’t “lift heavy” (a phrase rife on fitness boards) and have no interest in doing so. I don’t need to lift the Titanic, just a few bags of groceries or a sack of yard mulch. I need stronger bones, stronger muscles, better balance and no injuries, and that can be done with sub-100 pound weights, good form and enough reps. I’m not a big fan of gyms, and my little home set up satisfies my needs.
So, what about results? I’m definitely stronger. My arms in particular are more powerful. I can pick up heavy cast iron skillets with one hand now. I have no problem with heavy sacks of whatever (mulch, rice, rocks, groceries). My balance has really improved. I can walk downstairs without grabbing for the rail, even the incredibly steep steps to our basement. I haven’t had another incidence of the nerve compression, which is really good (that thing hurt so bad…) and while part of that healing is physical therapy, I think the attention I’ve given to strengthening my shoulders and back has helped prevent a recurrence.
I was able to do this kind of lifting even when I was at my heaviest, and unlike the cardio activity I’ve been doing, I was successful with weight lifting from Day One. I’ve never had an injury. My mantra is “Don’t drop it on your head. Don’t drop it on your head. Don’t drop it on your head…” which is a concern with overhead lifts. It’s fun to do, I like flexing my biceps and humming “I’m Popeye the sailor man, toot, toot!”, and I know I’m doing something that is good for me. I haven’t bothered with a bone density screening test.
If you’re not lifting weights, give it a try. Just don’t drop it on your head.