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School of Medicine
Pump Up Your Health
Strength training is one of the most important things you can do to feel younger longer. Let a Johns Hopkins expert help you get started (or step up your level) safely and easily.
Exercise just may be the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth. Besides lowering your risk of various diseases, it can even prevent some age-related changes in your DNA.
Weight training in particular preserves and builds muscle mass, which elevates metabolism and helps prevent weight gain while maintaining mobility. Sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass and function, is a huge cause of physical disability, and it often starts in middle age. Resistance training also increases bone density, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, improves insulin sensitivity, and can help alleviate depression and arthritis.
“Exercise is as or more beneficial than most pills we have for various diseases,” says Roger Blumenthal, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. “And it’s something you can do in your living room.”
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends strength training two or three days a week. These tips will help you get started or take your current routine to the next level.
“Once you’ve been cleared to exercise, you want to make sure you’re doing it correctly,” says Blumenthal, who almost always recommends aerobic exercise and strength training for his patients. Using the correct form will help you avoid injuries and see results faster. If you’re new to weights, hire a certified trainer, take a class at a local gym or community center, buy an exercise DVD or join one of the many online workout sites that are now available.
Find the right weight.
You can get a perfectly good workout without lifting a single dumbbell. Squats, lunges, push-ups and dips rely solely on body weight for resistance—and that’s plenty for many people. If you’re going to use weights, start low. “Don’t grab the 15- or 20-pounders right away,” says Blumenthal. “Use a lighter weight and do more repetitions, at least until you get the hang of it.”
The ACSM recommends doing two to four sets of 10 to 25 repetitions per move, but you can work up to that slowly and alter your routine based on your goals. Weight machines can be beneficial for beginners because they put you in the correct position and support you during your sets. Using free weights (aka dumbbells) improves your balance and stability, something that can help prevent falls as you age. Tools like resistance bands, weighted balls, stability balls and balance discs can add a new dimension—and challenge—to your workout.
Work all muscle groups.
You may have a burning desire to build your biceps or firm your backside, but don’t ignore other areas. For a strong body from head to toe, you need to work all of your muscles. “A good resistance routine should target every major muscle group,” says Blumenthal, including the shoulders, biceps, triceps, chest, back, abdominals, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. Your body is interconnected, so one muscle affects another. Also, those large muscles like your abs, back, glutes and legs play a huge role in posture and movement. If they get weak, you’ll be weak.
Play with the format.
There are many different ways to strength train. You can alter the speed, sets, reps, rest periods, equipment, moves and environment. One popular weight routine is circuit training, which involves moving from exercise to exercise with little to no rest. Try alternating upper and lower body moves for more of a challenge.
Repetitions: The number of movements you perform of an exercise in a row. For example, if you do 10 squats in a row, then you’ve done 10 repetitions, also called “reps.” Sets refer to the number of times you repeat a given exercise after a break. For example, if you do 10 squats, rest and then do 10 more squats, you’ve completed two sets of 10 reps each.
Muscle mass: Your muscles contract to power movements, and their mass refers to their size. The greater your muscle mass, the larger and denser your muscles are. The related term lean body mass is the weight of your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and internal organs.
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): Hereditary material that exists inside every living cell. Consisting of thousands of genes, DNA is a set of instructions telling our cells what to do. Our cells are capable of switching these genes on and off. When certain genes become switched on or off, various diseases can develop.
Bone density: The amount of calcium and other minerals inside a section of bone. Strong bones contain a dense framework of protein strands coated with calcium. This support system thins with age, lack of exercise and low intake of calcium and vitamin D, among other reasons. Low bone density increases fracture risk.