10 reasons women need strength training in midlife

February 7, 2024
10 reasons women need strength training in midlife

10 reasons women need strength training in midlife

Did you know weight training can ward off illness, keep your mind sharp, boost your mental health and even help you live longer? A sport scientist reveals just how little you need to do to reap all these benefits.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

It isn't exactly breaking news that being active is good for our physical and mental health. But while aerobic exercise such as jogging and cycling has been stealing the spotlight for decades, a growing body of evidence shows that strength training could be the key to healthy ageing.

Here are the top 10 benefits of building and maintaining muscle mass in midlife, and some hot advice from sport scientist and CEO of Revolve Athletic Kurt Vogel. (Spoiler: you don’t even need a gym membership!)

1. Helps maintain a healthy weight

It’s so important to love your body no matter what your size or shape, but keeping your weight within a healthy range will help protect you from a range of illnesses - and weight training can help.

“When you undertake strength training, your body burns more calories as it tries to recover and build muscle,” Kurt explains. “And as your nervous system works on building strength, it recruits more motor units - basically, more of the muscle is used - and that also helps manage weight better.”

2. Preserves balance and mobility

“We progressively lose muscle mass and strength as we age,” says Kurt. “That can lead to a reduction in functional capacity, or our ability to perform everyday tasks. It can also affect our balance and increase our risk of falls. But strength training can counteract these changes.”

3. Keeps bones healthy

Resistance training can help slow our rate of bone loss as we age and can even build bone. “Reduced bone mineral density, or osteopenia, can lead to fractures,” Kurt says. “So, building muscle mass can help protect you from falling and from breaking a bone if you do.”

4. Improves heart health

Cardio is often touted as the best way to a healthy heart, but a study of more than 12,000 people found that strength training for less than an hour a week can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 40 to 70 percent. 

5. Keeps diabetes at bay

Harvard researchers who studied more than 35,000 women over 14 years discovered that those who did any amount of strength training were 30 percent less likely to have type 2 diabetes than those who did none.

6. Boosts the immune system

A review of 30 studies found that resistance exercise has beneficial effects on several aspects of immune function in people of all ages.

7. Prevents and fights cancer 

“If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment,” wrote Prue Cormie, Chair of the Exercise and Cancer Group at the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, in a powerful article. “If we had a pill called exercise it would be demanded by cancer patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist, and subsidised by government.”

A University of Sydney study of more than 80,000 people found that strength training reduced the risk of cancer-related death by 31 percent.

8. Increases longevity

The same University of Sydney study concluded that strength training reduced the risk of premature death from all causes by 23 percent, leading the researchers to argue that building muscle is just as important as aerobic activity for longevity.

9. Improves mental health

“There’s plenty of research that shows strength training will improve your quality of life by reducing stress, anxiety and depression, and by improving mental wellbeing and self-esteem,” says Kurt.

10. Protects cognitive function and memory

In another study, University of Sydney researchers discovered that six months of weight training slowed and even halted cognitive degeneration in brain areas that were vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease.

5 strength training tips from a sport scientist

Getting started can feel intimidating, but Kurt believes anyone can get strong if they start small and build up gradually. Here are his top four tips.

1. Think outside the gym

Many women Kurt speaks to are hesitant to join a gym, but he insists that isn’t the only way to build muscle. “Walking up hills involves a certain amount of strength training,” he explains. “There are also plenty of lifestyle parks around Australia where you can do step-ups, modified chin-ups, rows and other exercises. At home, you can buy a step or do body-weight exercises.”

2. Talk to a GP or physiotherapist

If you’re new to lifting weights, you may want to talk to your GP first to get the all-clear. “And if you have any issues or concerns, such as shoulder pain or knee pain, I suggest seeing a physiotherapist to make sure you’re OK to undertake your program.”

3. Increase your load gradually

Gradual progression is the key to avoiding injury, advises Kurt. “If you’re doing step-ups at home, start without weights and then add some loads the second week. You could hold a water bottle in each hand. Or if you're at the gym, gradually add weight and make sure you use spotting bars on racks or other safety mechanisms.”

4. Aim for at least twice a week

“You’ll see benefits from just two sessions a week, but three to four times a week is even better,” says Kurt. “Remember that it doesn't have to be intense. You can go to the gym twice a week and go for a hilly walk another two times a week.”

5. You’re never too old

“It’s never too late to start strength training,” says Kurt. “But the older you get, the harder it is to recover from high-intensity exercise and the greater the risk of injury if you’re trying something new. So, it’s all about starting at your level and building from there. In some countries, women do some level of strength training until the day they die.”