For women over 50, there is a lot to consider when it comes to healthy aging. Lifestyle modifications might be necessary because of changes that occur during menopause, and addressing different systems in the body is important to keep many chronic conditions at bay. Cardiovascular and bone health are two of the most important systems to consider.
Unfortunately, the current statistics on heart and bone health are not great: 1 in 3 women die of cardiovascular disease worldwide and 1 in 2 women over 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. However, exercise – in particular, strength training – is one of the best ways to effectively address both heart and bone health simultaneously.
In this article, we’ll discuss strength training and how it can impact heart and bone health to ensure a long and active life that ultimately changes these statistics for good.
The role of exercise in women’s health
Exercise is important throughout the lifespan, but it can serve a particularly beneficial role for women as they age. According to the American Heart Association, adults should get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both spread throughout the week. The AHA also recommends moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance bands or weights) on at least 2 days per week (AHA, 2018).
For women, there are particular benefits to strength training. Not only does strength training help women increase muscle strength, it is also one of the best types of exercises to help build and strengthen bone – an important consideration for women over 50, as this is a time when both muscle and bone density begin to decline at a more rapid pace (Khalafi, 2023).
Strength training can be incorporated into a fitness program at any age, so you should never shy away from it even if you worry that you’re getting a late start. In fact, it may be more important after menopause than ever.
What is strength training?
Strength training, also known as resistance training, is a form of exercise that focuses on using resistance, such as weights, resistance bands or even your own bodyweight, to stimulate muscle contraction and enhance muscle strength, endurance, and size. By engaging in regular strength training exercises, women can not only build and grow their muscles but also improve bone health, promote heart health, and counteract the effects of aging, particularly after menopause (Khalafi, 2023).
These types of exercises are typically very accessible. While it helps to have access to a gym with large equipment and weights of different sizes and shapes, much can be done from the comfort of your own home with a little bit of creativity and guidance.
One of the main principles of strength training is progressive loading. The idea is that, as your body adapts by taking on higher loads of resistance than it is used to, the amount of resistance you need to apply to continue to see changes increases gradually over time. It can be very valuable to participate in a program like Wellen’s personalized exercise program that is specifically designed with the needs of women over 50 in mind, because this takes the guesswork out of which exercises are safe and appropriate, and helps guide you through progressively more challenging exercises.
Here are some benefits of strength training:
- Stronger Bones: Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become weak and more prone to fractures. For women post-menopause, this becomes a significant concern due to the decline in estrogen, a hormone crucial for bone density maintenance. Strength training, which includes weight-bearing exercises such as lifting weights or using resistance bands, can help stimulate bone growth and maintain or boost bone mass (Hong, 2018). This not only reduces the risk of fractures but can also contribute to improved balance and a reduced likelihood of falls.
- Heart Health: Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women, but the good news is that strength training can positively impact heart health. Engaging in regular strength exercises can lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and enhance overall cardiovascular function (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2023). This, combined with aerobic activities like walking, hiking, or cycling, creates a well-rounded fitness routine that benefits the heart and reduces the risk of heart disease.
- Muscle Mass Preservation: As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass, leading to a decrease in strength and physical function. Strength training helps combat this decline by stimulating muscle growth and improving muscular endurance (Hong, 2018). By incorporating resistance exercises 2-3 times per week, women can maintain muscle mass, making daily activities easier, and preserve their independence as they age.
The menopause-exercise connection
Menopause marks a significant hormonal shift in a woman's life, leading to a decrease in estrogen levels. This decline can result in various challenges, including a higher risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and loss of muscle mass (AHA, 2023). However, engaging in regular strength training can mitigate these effects and promote overall well-being.
Menopause can bring about significant changes in a woman’s body, but it's essential to recognize that this phase of life doesn't mean you need to slow down or fear new exercises. In fact, it's the perfect time to embrace the benefits of strength training, which can become a powerful tool that helps you maintain bone health, keep your heart strong, and contribute to an active and fulfilling life.
Strength training and bone health
As mentioned, osteoporosis and loss of bone mass after menopause is a concern for all women hoping to lead an active and healthy life. The best exercises for bone health include: weight-bearing, resistance, balance and posture exercises. Strength training is the backbone of each of these. Including weight-bearing and resistance exercises directly encourages bone and muscle growth in the body by increasing the demand on the body and encouraging adaptations to the new loads. Meanwhile, incorporating resistance exercises to improve posture and enhance balance can also help prevent falls and vertebral compression fractures. Learning how to strength train with proper form and alignment can help maintain and protect bone tissue for years to come.
Strength training and heart health
When you think of heart health, you may be thinking that cardio or aerobic exercise is the only way to go. But according to the AHA, strength training is also critical for a healthy heart (AHA, 2018).
Incorporating regular strength exercises into one's fitness routine can effectively lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2023). As we age, our heart health becomes increasingly important, and strength training, in conjunction with cardiovascular or aerobic exercises, offers a powerful defense against heart-related issues. By enhancing overall cardiovascular function, strength training empowers women to maintain a strong and healthy heart, promoting longevity and an active lifestyle well into their later years.
Guidelines for safe and effective strength training
To ensure a safe and effective strength training routine, it’s important to incorporate a few safety guidelines recommended by the American Heart Association:
- Warm-up: Begin each session with a 5-10 minute warm-up of light aerobic activity. This can include warm-up exercises or brisk walking, which can help increase blood flow to the muscles and prepare the body for exercise.
- Gradual progression: Start with light weights or resistance bands and gradually increase the intensity as you feel comfortable. Aim for 2 sets of 10-15 repetitions of each exercise.
- Balance and flexibility: Combine strength training with flexibility and balance exercises, such as stretching and tai chi, to enhance stability and range of motion while encouraging balance and safety with resistance exercises.
- Rest and recovery: Allow at least 48 hours of rest between strength training sessions to give muscles time to recover and repair.
- Safety first: Make sure you know how to use proper form and technique during exercises to prevent injuries. A program like Wellen’s can help get you started with clear and precise video and audio demonstrations of each exercise to help give you confidence in your movement and protect your body from injury. If you're new to strength training, have a history of falls, fractures or heart events, or have a complex medical history, consider working with a physical therapist first to learn the correct techniques.
Strength training is a game-changer for women after menopause. By incorporating this empowering form of exercise into your life, you can protect our bones, boost your heart health, and maintain muscle mass for an active and vibrant future. If you’re not sure where to begin, Wellen’s personalized exercise program has been vetted by experts in the field.
Remember, it's never too late to start, and with the right guidance and information, you can embrace aging and let your strongest, healthiest years be ahead of you.