Strength training has many potential benefits, which have remained largely unexplored and unused in the women’s fitness industry. It is only in the last two decades, that the popularity of barre and Pilate classes, have made women sit up and take notice of the time-saving and health benefits of including resistance training in their exercise routine. Strength-training has also taken a back seat in public health promotion campaigns which endorse the cardiovascular fitness brought about by programs like 10,000 steps a day and the comparatively quick weight loss that is achieved by cardiovascular training. Running, cycling and jogging have been promoted more than strength training. However, the following article is not advocating the replacement of these activities; rather, here I argue the case for including at least two strengthening sessions per week for optimum muscle health.
Muscle strength has far-reaching health benefits beyond simple weight loss. Strength training reduces risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain and physical disability due to muscular degeneration. Increasing muscle mass is also key to preventing chronic conditions such as osteoporosis. Osteoporosis, or the weakening of bones due to loss of density, is of special concern to women of menopausal age. Muscle strength is especially important for older adults as it prevents, or reduces, frailty and the risk of falls. Older people can improve the quality of their lives by independent and unassisted living.
Achieving a baseline muscle mass is important for your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the rate at which your body uses energy while in a state of rest. Muscle-strengthening can be done using hand-weights, exercise or therapy bands, exercise machines, or using one’s own body weight. Regular strength training improves the size, function and power of the muscle. As muscle at rest burns more calories for its maintenance than fat at rest, your body’s ability to use excess energy rather than converting it into fat, is greatly enhanced.
Some of the reasons people shy away from strength training activities became clear during my doctoral research. The following are some common misconceptions and guidelines to overcome them.
· Lack of Knowledge Research shows people are more likely to continue the physical activity that they are familiar with or have had positive experiences with in the past. For example, a woman in her 50s is more likely to restart weight training if she had done this activity when she was younger.
· Social Cohesion Just like in peer pressure, people try to belong to a cohesive social group. This may be their nuclear family, extended family or group of friends. If strength training is regarded as an activity that reinforces the group’s values, then individuals are more likely to take it up.
· Lack of Time In my experience, citing lack of time as the reason for not doing an activity is an excuse for a different thing altogether. For example, for many years I avoided taking a “Step” cardio class. I told myself this was due to an old knee injury and I would exacerbate it. However, I was subconsciously afraid of exposing my bad coordination in the complicated cardio routine which changes every six weeks. Alternatively, I found the more structured coordination required in traditional martial arts more to my liking and more suitable for my coordination! Sometimes we fear failure, or being ridiculed, and we cite not having time for a new activity. Do take some time out to analyze what you fear. Once you know what you are actually afraid of, you can actively take steps to overcome it.
· Access to Machines Machines are considered essential for strength training. However, good results can be achieved with simple activities which can be done without machines, such as squats, sit-ups, push-ups and household activities such as lifting, carrying and digging.
· Priority Work, children, caring for the elderly and looking after the household are routine tasks for most women. International research shows this leaves little time for leisure for women of several different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Prioritizing time for yourself in an investment not only in your own health, but in the future of your family as well. So make time- perhaps first thing in the morning after Fajr, or when the children are at school, or maybe you have a health-friendly workplace which has an exercise equipment room you can use during lunch?
· Framing strength training as a Punishment If you think lifting weights is a dead-end chore with no excitement, it is bound to get monotonous and dull, creating a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where your negative expectations will come true. Re-framing this type of exercise as an enjoyable, essential activity that is making you stronger will enable you to recondition your thinking positively. I personally like to lift weights while catching up on the news on the television or radio, listening to a speech, or have one of my children in the same room telling me about their day at school. Multi-tasking in this manner energizes me while using my “fitness time” more fully.
· Masculine Activity Strength training is often associated with masculine muscle gain which is a deterrent for women to participate in this activity. However, women do not have the hormonal and genetic capacity to generate bulky muscle tissue. They can expect to develop long, lean muscle which is aesthetically pleasing with providing the optimal support for their skeletal framework.
· Dress Requirements Many Muslim women shy away from a gymnasium due to their clothing requirements. It is important to note, that as explained in my article “Exercise Guidelines”, setting up a weights machine is easy and affordable, if one is unable to join a gym. There are also various alternatives at a local gymnasium, such as particular floors restricted to women, women-only gyms and women-only timings. Be sure to check these details before dismissing the possibility of training at a gym.
It is therefore obvious that the benefits of strength training far outweigh any perceived risks. “To Pump or not to Pump?” is no longer the question. Pumping iron is the best way to a healthier, stronger you.