Miriam Nelson is on a crusade to get older folks to lift weights. The physiologist and her colleagues at Tufts University have proved that strength training not only builds muscles but also strengthens bones and helps control the aging process. She talks to TIME about her new book, Strong Women and Men Beat Arthritis.
WHY SHOULD OLDER FOLKS TAKE UP STRENGTH TRAINING? At around age 35, we start to lose about a third of a pound of muscle and gain that much body fat every year. This loss of muscle puts us at greater risk for numerous chronic conditions, such as osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, frailty and osteoarthritis. Strength training can increase muscle mass, muscle strength, balance and bone density and help reduce weight gain. In addition, it dramatically reduces pain in people with arthritis, improves glucose control in Type 2 diabetics, reduces depression and improves sleep patterns.
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT STRENGTH TRAINING? That women who do it will bulk up. This simply doesn't happen without steroids and huge amounts of training. Because muscle is denser than body fat, it takes up less space. When women lose fat and gain muscle, they actually become trimmer. Most drop a dress size after a few months.
DO YOU HAVE TO GO TO A FITNESS CENTER TO DO IT? You can, of course, using the facility's machines or free weights and working with an instructor. But you can also do it at home. All you need is a safe area for exercise, a sturdy chair, a couple of sets of dumbbells and some ankle weights. You should follow a program appropriate to your age and condition, and you can easily find various programs in my books and other sources. As with all exercise, if you have a chronic medical condition, it's best to talk to your doctor before you start.
HOW DOES STRENGTH TRAINING HELP RELIEVE THE PAIN OF OSTEOARTHRITIS, THE WEAR-AND-TEAR FORM OF ARTHRITIS? By helping the joints align and function better--and also because strong muscles absorb shock during movement. Think of a car with worn-out shock absorbers. When you go over a pothole, the car gets a big jolt. The same happens with weak muscles. You can't absorb the shock, and it's painful. There may be some other biochemical factors as well.
WHAT ABOUT INFLAMMATORY CONDITIONS, LIKE RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS? Our first strength-training study of arthritis was with individuals who have rheumatoid arthritis. They too became very strong and had reductions in pain. what is the ideal time to start strength training? Now--whatever age you're at.
IS IT EVER TOO LATE? No. We have worked with people well into their 90s. These individuals are usually quite weak and frail, and this is exactly what they need. One woman, now 93, still lives in her own home. She strength trains several times a week and has even taken up bowling!
HOW OFTEN AND HOW LONG SHOULD YOU WORK OUT? Two or three times a week. When you start, you may be doing only 15 to 20 minutes at a stretch, but you should gradually increase to approximately 45 minutes. You should target most of the major muscle groups--arms, shoulders, trunk, hips and legs.