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The strength of a simple idea

Weight training can trim you down and help prevent health problems

To many people who don't get to the gym frequently, weight lifting may seem like a sweaty version of cosmetic surgery. They may admire the results, but the process by which they were achieved is often thought to be a little too vain and messy to be approved in polite company.

A wealth of recent research has underscored just how outdated that view of strength training has become. The American College of Sports Medicine recently recommended that both aerobic and anaerobic exercise - that is, strength training - be included in any balanced fitness program.

Scientists have found that many people, even those who get regular aerobic exercise, suffer rapid erosion of muscle mass after age 45 or so. With the loss of muscle mass comes a decline in strength, which is reflected by a significant drop in a person's resting metabolic rate. Not only do tasks like lifting become more difficult, but the fall-off in metabolism encourages weight gain that might not have been a problem before.

This muscle drain can be greatly reduced by engaging in a regular program of strength training. A basic program involves lifting small free weights, or lifting weights or stretching large elastic bands on stationary universal exercise machines.

All of these approaches fall under the rubric of "resistance training" and help to replace muscle mass that has been lost to aging. Resistance training can also raise a person's metabolic rate - making it easier to lose weight - and help to prevent osteoporosis, back and joint problems, diabetes, and the kind of high cholesterol counts that can eventually lead to heart disease.

Women may benefit in particular from a program of weight training. According to a recent report in the American Journal of Health Promotion, strength training not only improved the muscle strength of women in their 40s, it also boosted their body image and self-esteem far more than walking for exercise. Studies at Ohio State University and Stanford University found that women engaging in regular strength training after menopause also experienced significant gains in the bone mass of the spine and in overall muscle strength.

The elderly have much to gain as well. Another report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, after 10 weeks of strength training, a group of men and women in their 80s and 90s upped their weight-lifting capacity by 118 percent and improved their walking speed and stair-climbing by 12 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

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Updated on April 8, 1996