How do I start an exercise program at 50? Start with strength.
Here it is sisters — the truth. If you are struggling with your weight, feeling a loss of strength, or you are having problems with balance, there is a good explanation. After menopause, many of us have a decline in bone mineral density, muscle mass, and the health of our joints. All of this might not be very noticeable at first, but over time has a significant impact on all sorts of health issues.
For example, when muscle mass decreases, we don’t burn fat as effectively. The loss of muscle mass means weight loss and even weight maintenance is much harder. For women in peri or post-menopause, focusing on maintaining muscle mass is vital to both health and weight management.
A typical (but mostly avoidable) part of aging is a condition called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the process of our muscles becoming smaller over time. If you know any sedentary women over 80, have a look at their legs. The longer you live, the smaller the circumference of your muscles become, and especially if you do nothing to reverse the process. Hormonal changes, individual protein requirements, and inactive lifestyles can also make some women much more susceptible to the changes that occur as a result of sarcopenia.
Muscle loss occurs over the lifespan (typically starting in our 30s) but becomes more rapid after menopause. Because of muscle loss, women tend to lose strength in their hips and legs, and with reduced strength in these areas comes slow and insidious changes in mobility, balance, which eventually poses a risk for falls.
Reduced bone mineral density (BMD) is another important and related issue for peri and post-menopausal women. BMD loss can occur at any time in adulthood but increases for women post-menopause. Bone mineral loss can also lead to Osteoporosis. Because BMD loss typically progresses with few symptoms and little pain, many women don’t discover that they have low bone mass until they break a bone. Not surprisingly, osteoporosis and fracture rates in women also increase substantially after menopause.
But it’s not all bad news. We have an amazing and effective medicine to help combat muscle loss, regulate body weight, and slow the reduction of bone mineral density. Ready for it? It’s called strength-training.
The Benefits of Strength-Training
There’s still an amazing amount of resistance (pun intended) to this medicine. For example, many women still look at the calorie-burning effectiveness of activity when planning the exercise portion of a day. Overall, women tend to gravitate towards cardiovascular exercise and shy away from strength training.
It’s true, the calorie-burning numbers achieved in a strength-training session are relatively low compared to the effort. The critical point to consider here is that one of the most significant benefits of strength training comes after the session when your overall energy expenditure and fat oxidation is increased.
Having more muscle also burns more calories. In a 2018 study done at Brigham Young University, researchers found that the women who participated in regular strength training sessions, their body fat was lower, and their fat-free mass (muscle and bone) was higher. They also found that there was a relationship between more frequent or intense training and better body composition.
The bottom line is that strength training is one of the very best ways to control your weight and improve your body composition. Period.
But the benefits don’t merely stop at weight control. Women who strength train have better overall bone mineral density and maintain much more muscle mass as they age. Better strength means better mobility, fewer falls, and better overall strength.
Strength-training-women have overall lower cardiovascular disease risk, better cognitive function, a lowered risk of certain types of cancers, and improved overall mental health. Strength training is even associated with reduced rates of anxiety and depression.
For all those great benefits of strength-training, let’s dispel the reason we hear most often from women that they don’t want to participate: Strength-training will make you “bulk-up.”
My suggestion to anyone who thinks this is true is to visit an Olympic weight lifting gym. If you asked the people lifting how easy it is to bulk-up, you would likely hear a resounding, “It’s tough!”
Putting on muscle mass that is significant enough to increase your size is very tough to do for most women. While doing a few moderate-intensity strength training sessions per week will likely improve your muscle to fat ratio, it is far less likely to make you bigger.
What Can I Do?
So, what are some things to know if you want to get started with strength-training?
1. If you are not regularly physically active or if you have any health concerns, please check with your doctor before starting a program.
2. You don’t need to join a gym to get all the great benefits. Strength training can be done with resistance bands or even simply with your own body weight.
3. Know the lingo. Reps are individual exercises performed once (e.g., one squat is one rep). Sets are a group of reps (10 squats could make up one set).
4. Think about the best prescription for you. To get the most benefit, work up to exercising each major muscle group 2 to 3 days per week with 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. If you’ve never strength-trained in the past, start with 1 set of 8 to 12 repetitions. Stick to increases of 5-10% per week. Even better, get some professional training.
5.Protect your bones. If you have been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis avoid movements that require you to bend forward from the spine or have quick, twisting motions.
That’s it. If you want to change your health and change your life, try a little strength-training.
Your sister in health,
 Burrup, R., Tucker, L. A., Le Cheminant, J. D., & Bailey, B. W. (2018). Strength training and body composition in middle-age women. Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness, 58(1/2), 82–91. https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.17.06706-8
 Rosen, S. E., & Mieres, J. H. (2016). Exercise and Strength Training in Postmenopausal Women at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease: Need for Strategies to Improve Adherence. Journal of Women’s Health (15409996), 25(10), 981–982. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2016.5976