Weigh Your Options
Pumping iron builds your bones, boosts your mood, and improves your overall fitness

By Shanti Sosienski

If you're like most women, when you think of pumping iron, you visualize that corner of the gym where overly muscled men grunt and sweat profusely as they try to bench-press absurd amounts of weight. So it's easy to understand why women are more likely to hit the treadmill or jump on a stair stepper before they'll brave the weight area. In fact, only 19 percent of American women say they do strength-training exercises, compared with more than 27 percent of men, according to a 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But before you count out weight lifting, you should know that achieving optimal physical fitness involves three fundamentals, according to the American Council on Exercise: cardiovascular workouts, flexibility training, and, yes, strength training. Also called resistance training, because your muscles push or pull against some force, strength training is the most effective way for women to fend off the loss of muscle—and the accompanying creep of flab—that comes with age. Not only does weight training strengthen muscles, it also increases bone density, elevates mood, stokes your metabolism, and burns calories. What's more, it's never too late to start strength training, and you can continue to do it at any age. Here's a look at why weight lifting is so beneficial—and how you can get started right at home.

Good For Your Bones
One of the most important benefits of weight lifting is that it strengthens your bones. "Your skeleton is a living tissue like your skin, so you constantly have cells cycling and being remade," explains Christine Snow, PhD, director of the Bone Research Laboratory and professor of exercise and sports science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "Fewer bone cells form naturally as you age, which is why you need to stimulate this growth." Diminished bone density, or osteoporosis, can hamper posture and eventually lead to outright fractures. The loss of estrogen women experience as they age contributes to bone deterioration, making women more susceptible to osteoporosis than men.

But weight lifting can help put an end to that. In 2000, Snow and her colleagues published research showing that postmenopausal women who started resistance training for the first time were able to halt-and even reverse-the breakdown of their bones. A 1994 study of 40 postmenopausal women conducted at Tufts University found that regular strength training not only stopped bone loss (women typically lose 1 percent of bone mass per year after menopause), but increased bone mass by 1 percent per year.

To better understand how weight lifting helps strengthen your bones, imagine that your skeleton is like a tree. If you put something heavy on a branch—or on your arm or leg—the limb bows under the weight but eventually strengthens to support the weight. The increase in the strength of your bones reflects an increase in bone mineral, making your bones more resistant to injury and preventing bone loss as you get older.

Look And Feel Better
Weight lifting goes beyond building better bones. It can also improve your mood. Researchers at the Division on Aging at Harvard Medical School found that depressed elderly people significantly improved their mood through progressive resistance training three times a week (Journal of Gerontology, 1997, vol. 52, no. 1). Resistance training also improved their strength, morale, and overall quality of life.

The muscle sculpting that results from strength training can also improve a woman's body image. "I've seen it time and time again in women as they begin to lift weights—they feel stronger, and this leads to feeling emotionally and mentally stronger," says J.J. Virgin, an exercise physiologist and nutritionist who developed nutrition programs for Spa Helios, a medical day spa at The River in Rancho Mirage, California. "When you are strong, you walk better, walk taller, and generally look better." Research echoes this sentiment: A study conducted at Brigham Young University showed that women who lifted weights three days a week developed a more positive body image than those who walked the same amount of time (American Journal of Health Promotion, 1993, vol. 8, no. 1).

"The best thing I have found about weight lifting is that you'll feel a significant difference in your body after just six weeks of body shaping," says Gayle Etcheverry, a Los Angeles-based personal trainer. "Weight training is one of the very few natural ways you can change the way you look. It also makes you strong, which builds confidence and self esteem."

But wait, there's more. Because muscle burns more calories than fat does, weight training eventually revs your metabolism-even when you're not working out. Snow explains that for every pound of muscle added to your body, you can expect to burn an additional 30 to 50 calories per hour at rest. Yes, that means that even when you're sitting at your desk, you burn more calories. That's because muscle requires more energy than fat does to keep it alive and healthy. "The bottom line here is that we've been brainwashed to think that the only way to burn calories is to do more aerobics," says Snow. "But what [aerobic activity] doesn't do is add muscle mass, which helps burn more calories."

Let's dispel one more myth before getting into the how-tos of lifting: Weight training does not cause women to become huge or bulk up. "From a scientific perspective, women don't have enough testosterone naturally occurring [in their bodies] to make them big," explains Virgin. In fact, as you convert fat to more compact muscle, you might even see a decrease in your clothes size.

Pump It Up
One way to begin lifting is to join a gym, where a personal trainer can help you establish a routine. If that doesn't appeal to you, you can easily do strength training at home. To build a home gym, you need just a few pieces of inexpensive equipment: dumbbells ($3 to $10 per weight), an exercise ball ($30), a large exercise rubber band ($3), tubing ($6), and an assist strap ($2) to attach the tubing to the doorjamb. Which is better—a gym or your house? Etcheverry and Snow agree that the most effective weight-training program is simply the one you'll do consistently, at least three times a week.

The style of weights you choose also does not matter, says Virgin. The resistance can come from water bottles, laundry detergent jugs, free weights, or your own body weight; the important thing is to create a stress on your muscle fibers. "What's imperative in the process is that as you get stronger, you progressively increase resistance and change exercises," says Virgin. And, adds Etcheverry, if you decide to work out at home, pay attention to your posture when you lift weights. "Core muscle strength [which involves your abdominal and lower-back muscles] is crucial," she notes. "If your core is weak, it doesn't matter how many times you lift an 8-pound dumbbell; you won't see optimal results."

For more guidance, seek out a professional trainer or watch one of the many strength-training videos on the market. A knowledgeable friend can also help you get started. And if you're just beginning, start slowly and give yourself at least six weeks before you expect to see results. Building muscle is a lengthy process, but if you stick with it, you'll be pleased with the results. "All fitness is interrelated," concludes Etcheverry. "Flexibility, cardio, and strength training—you need them all if you're to have optimal fitness."

Since getting over her fear of pumping iron, Shanti Sosienski has joined a gym and dropped seven pounds. She lives in Santa Monica, California.