I was at a lunch recently, when two women challenged each other to an arm wrestle; pride, not alcohol, was the reason. Both lifted weights and were pretty proud of their strength.
I decided to have a chat with Paula Goodyer. She writes on health for the SMH and at 70 weighs 50 kgs and lifts heavy weights – her personal best this year is an 80kg deadlift.
Here she explains why she started lifting weights and why we women should start.
Paula: Yes he rang me one day (her financial planner) I think I was about 68 at this point, he said “Paula do you have a bucket list?” and I said “No.” He said “I think you should, you should start to think of the things you want to do … um …. you know … before it’s too late “…….. I thought about this for a while and I realised there wasn’t anything in particular I wanted to do or see. Then I realised that the thing I really wanted was to be as strong as I could possibly be.
That’s when I decided to hire a strength and conditioning coach at my local gym and start lifting heavier weights than I have done in the past.
Me: But why did you want to be strong?
Paula: Because by that point, I’d written a lot about strength training and the importance of muscle. We all know it’s very good for bones but there’s now a growing body of research that says that muscle acts like an organ in its own right. It sort of works in the opposite way to fat. When you accumulate a lot of fat around the middle it produces some nasty inflammatory chemicals that can damage the body and contribute to chronic diseases. Muscle has the opposite effect, in fact it produces beneficial chemicals that have an anti-inflammatory effect and a positive effect on the immune system so it’s like growing another organ that’s a real asset as you grow older.
The other thing is the vanity aspect, because once you’re in the run up to menopause you get hormonal changes that change how you store extra weight. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to get fatter but instead of storing weight around your lower body, hips and thighs you tend to pile it on around the waist. So you get that blown out around the waist, skinny leg look. Next stop elastic pants.
I started doing strength training at a more modest level in my late 40’s and I didn’t seem to be blowing out around the middle like other women my age. If you can increase your muscle mass, it increases your metabolism so you burn kilojoules and fat more effectively.
Me: But if you have already got to the point where you have the middle age spread is it reversible?
Paula: I don’t see why not. You will need more than strength training. Anyone will tell you that eating a healthier diet and cutting down on kilojoules from crappy food is an effective way to lose weight. You can also burn fat by regular walking or running and adding some strength training. Increase muscle and you increase your metabolism,’ so yes I think it is reversible.
Just don’t be afraid of lifting, because it looks terrifying when you see people lifting these massive weights, but that’s not where you start. You start with 2.5 kilos or 5 kilos and then you gradually build up and it’s being not afraid of going a bit further and then a bit further and then mentally not thinking oh I’m 50 or I’m 55 or 65 and I can’t do this. A good way to start is with gym classes that incorporate weights or to invest in a good trainer to make sure you’re lifting safely.
Me: I think sometimes people get a bit wary of weight training because they think they will end up bulky.
Paula: I’s a fallacy because women don’t have enough of the hormone testosterone to create massive muscles. But if you are willing to lift heavy weights you are going to increase your level of testosterone which women need as they’re getting older. Human growth hormone taken in a supplement form is dodgy but lifting heavy weights can help you produce more of it naturally and it has an anti-ageing effect. Like testosterone, it’s a hormone that declines as we get older.
There are so many positives with how you look and how your body functions. I can pick up massive garden pots now, I’m – touch wood – less likely to injure myself lifting a garden pot or moving furniture because I’ve learnt how to lift and I’m so much stronger. I’m probably stronger than I was when I was thirty five.
Me: I think women, as they age, get very afraid of breaking bones, you know they become timid about some of the things they will do.
Paula: If you can build strength you are improving your balance …. You are strengthening muscles that keep you on your feet. Things like jumping, which we stop doing as we get older also help maintain your fast twitch muscles and these are the muscles that will react in an explosive way so if you’re about to fall over they can leap into action. It’s all about function, you need to retain that way of reacting, to save yourself, instead of being afraid of something in case you hurt yourself. If you’re concerned about injury or fragile bones book some sessions with an exercise physiologist who can help you work out what you can do safely to maintain good function.
Me: Given we are living longer you don’t want to have a mental block thinking you can’t do stuff.
Paula: No you don’t, because I think you can. You know you can spend money getting your nails done or facials or all sorts of anti-ageing things, but I think in terms of bang for your buck getting into a gym, getting someone to advise you how to do things safely …. I think that’s a wonderful investment not just in the way your body looks, but the way your body works, so you don’t end up having trouble getting out of a chair.
Women are conditioned not to lift “it will be too heavy, you’ll hurt yourself” … how often do you go to the supermarket and they’ll put two cans of dog food in a plastic bag, saying “Be careful that’s heavy” and it’s not – but if we don’t keep lifting we won’t be able to do anything.
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