Getting heavier with exercise

Years ago in my 40s when I was living in Singapore, I marvelled enviously at the women who suddenly started entering triathlons or marathons. It seemed to be a thing once women hit a certain age. I wished I could run too but it was something I had a love hate relationship with. I remember clearly a woman who shared how many miles she was running each day and yet she wasn’t losing weight and had actually gained a sum total of 1 pound. We all gasped and when I look back now, it makes complete sense. She was gaining muscle mass which we all know is heavier than our softer fatty tissue.

During lockdown when I embarked on a different kind of fitness and strength training, I nevertheless began to be dismayed when I realised my clothes were feeling tighter from top to bottom. Of course there was no one to compare this with as it was my new program. I was also beginning to unravel breathing patterns through building an awareness of the sternum to tailbone movement following a year long study in somatics with the wonderful Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. They hardly seem like compatible movement arts and yet there it was, my rib cage was expanding. It wasn’t fat but it felt like ‘bigger’ to me having had a more sylph like yoga frame and I didn’t know whether to stop or how to reverse the increasing number on the scales. Why are we so conditioned as women to think we have to look a certain way or that weight matters.

I continued nonetheless because of the feel good factor after every class. I also began to see that I was only able to move well through movements familiar to me in yoga postures but I didn’t have the strength to do half the options being offered in the fitness strength training. This wasn’t about using weights, it was simply using our own body weight and my yoga body couldn’t cope with the range of movements nor the repetition. I sweated like I hadn’t for years and yet I was beginning to feel an increase in energy and a lack of feeling tired all the time like I hadn’t experienced in years. I also noticed I wasn’t as cold any more and this had nothing to do with the menopause or being warm as I am well past that stage and thankfully didn’t encounter the symptoms some women describe of flash heat. I think all mothers or working women must go through similar phases where there just isn’t the time to dedicate or focus on ‘self’ or figure out what’s best for us. We just grab what we can and muster through the classes we think we should be doing and the exercises that we try to do. I never liked the gym. I went anyway because it meant I could encourage my children to exercise and they loved the gym. Life for me at home was finally easing up in terms of having to keep an eye on the children as they were on their way to full adulthood.

The reason I am sharing this is because so many of the women I’ve known over the years who persevered doing exercises they didn’t have the strength for, ended up with either hip replacements (especially the runners and the ashtangis). I too had shoulder tears, sacroiliac issues, knee issues, plantar fasciitis, neck pain…. I could go on. Roll on over one year into my new strength and fitness regime, all, yes all, of my pain has gone and I am also a good 10 pounds heavier. That might sound alarming when the consensus is that you’re supposed to lose weight with regular exercise and it is certainly the message that keeps being touted through the fitness industry.  I admit I still look twice every time I step on to the scales or in front of a mirror but I know it’s muscle mass and though I’ve had to discard my skinny jeans (they were so damned uncomfortable anyway) and have gone up a size, I can now lift heavy plant pots, get up off the floor without using my hands, I’m not breathless, I don’t have that weak tired feeling in my body that I had got used to living with. I’m a stronger fitter, bigger and older woman and I love that feeling in my body. Here’s a simple article I enjoyed reading….. I hope you enjoy it too.

Why strength training is the secret to midlife weight loss

Once seen as an optional extra, a growing body of research suggests it is vital for warding off obesity and staying sharp

By Caroline Williams

9 August 2021 

The current UK guideline recommend strength training at least twice a week.

You’re nailing the step target, don’t get out of breath on the stairs and are fairly confident that you could run to catch a bus if necessary. But it’s still possible that you are missing a crucial aspect of health and fitness.

According to a growing body of research, strength training, once seen as an optional extra, should be considered at least as important as aerobic exercise. That could include everything from lifting weights to carrying heavy shopping. Activities like these, which stress the muscles, are being shown to have benefits beyond aerobic exercise – and be important for weight control in middle age.

In a study published in June, researchers at Iowa State University looked at records for 12,000 mostly middle-aged adults and found that two or more sessions of weight-training a week was enough to reduce the risk of obesity by 20 to 30 per cent over two decades, even for people who do no aerobic exercise. Ramping it up to one or two hours a week was even more effective, reducing the risk of obesity by 30-40 per cent. Other bonus effects include reduced cholesterol, inflammation and blood pressure and a reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Muscular strength has been linked to a longer life, a lower risk of obesity, and a healthier brain, bones and cardiovascular system. It has also been shown to improve self esteem, boost confidence and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

But there are signs that even people who exercise regularly are neglecting their strength. “At the population level, approximately 60 per cent do no strength training. This is almost double those who do no aerobic exercise,” says Jason Bennie, an exercise epidemiologist at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia.

The benefits of adding strength to the mix can be significant. According to a recent analysis,  people who did regular muscle-strengthening exercise were 21 per cent less likely to die from any cause over the following decade, regardless of their age and how much aerobic exercise they also did.

The reasons why are complex but it seems to come down to giving the body something constructive to do with its spare calories. Challenging the body to lift weight stimulates the body to maintain muscle capacity it already has, and to add more if necessary. The energy for this can come from stored fat or sugar or from any extra calories taken in through the diet. The build and repair process continues long after we finish exercising, with muscle continuing to burn calories for up to 24 hours.

Once new muscle is in place, it’s the metabolic gift that keeps giving. Muscle is packed with mitochondria, the factory-like parts of the cell that turn glucose into energy. Having more muscle on board means that the body has more factories to run, and so burns more calories, even at rest.

These benefits also extend to the brain. Higher levels of overall strength are associated with better performance on tests of cognitive skills such as memory and decision-making. It also seems to keep the brain healthy for longer.

Like other forms of exercise this likely comes down to a mix of better circulation and a boost to maintenance and repair, thanks to the release of various growth factors, which add new neurons and connections in the brain. There may be something else going on, however, that is particularly relevant to the importance of weights.

When we put weight on our bones they release a hormone called osteocalcin into the blood where it travels to the brain and connects with the hippocampus, a key brain region involved in memory.

Only a few studies have been done so far, but those that have suggest that osteocalcin is indeed important for memory, particularly as we age. From middle-age onwards, levels of osteocalcin start to decline, making weight-bearing exercise all the more important to protect the brain.

A lack of osteocalcin has also been linked to anxiety in animal studies – and resistance exercise has been shown to be particularly effective in relieving depression and anxiety and to boosting levels of self-esteem.

As far back as the late-Eighties, studies suggested that increasing physical strength could have outcomes for mental health. A group of teenage girls who did weights to boost their strength by 40 per cent over 12 weeks, for example, reported not only feeling stronger physically but mentally, too, with more confidence in tricky social situations or arguments and greater belief in their “general effectiveness in life”. Other studies suggest that while this is also true of aerobic fitness, weight training seems to have an edge, at least in the short term.

It’s not exactly clear why this should be, and osteocalcin is almost certainly not the whole story. One idea is that our brains make a call on what we can handle based on not only what’s in our heads, but via an unconscious sense of what our bodies are capable of. Getting stronger provides an underlying confidence in your abilities that makes life feel that much more doable.

Overall, the clear message coming through from the research is that at every stage of life, no matter how aerobically fit you are, adding a bit of resistance training will pay dividends. In young people, it’s important not only for confidence-building, but to build strong bones and muscles as insurance for when both start to decline from middle age. From then on, it’s a question of maintaining what you’ve got for as long as possible.

“We all lose muscle mass and muscle strength with age, and maintaining it is so much easier than increasing it,” says Tessa Strain, an exercise epidemiologist at Cambridge University.  Having a certain level of strength is crucial to allow people to live independently for longer, she adds – like having the leg strength to get up out of a chair. “There comes a point where it doesn’t matter how aerobically fit you are. There’s a level of strength we all need to operate in life”.

The current UK guidelines, which were updated in 2019, recommend strength training at least twice a week on top of (or as part of) the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes moderate-to-vigorous exercise.

This doesn’t have to mean lifting weights at the gym. Heavy gardening, carrying shopping, hill walking and swimming, all boost physical strength as do sports like cycling, tennis and climbing. Even sitting on the floor more often is a great way to increase leg strength, because at some point you’re going to have to get up. Strain points out that what’s most important is to work all the major muscle groups – legs, arms, core, chest and back. An easy way to make sure you’re hitting all these targets is to do body weight exercises like push ups, squats and lunges. There are countless options online including chair exercises for the less mobile, and the NHS website has a series of 10-minute body-weight exercise routines that can be done at home. The NHS advises that strength exercises should be done “to the point where you need a short rest before repeating the activity”.

Ideally, says Strain, we should combine aerobic exercise with resistance exercise to get the best possible outcomes. But even those who hate rushing around and getting out of breath should still prioritise building strength. In short: if in doubt, lift.