How Strong is Too Strong?

How strong should you be and can you be “too strong”? I ask this question because if you’ve been joining our daily walks, you know that I have been suffering from some pain in my hip for about two months now.  Since I wasn’t able to get rid of the pain with massage or foam rolling, I mentioned it to my doctor during my wellness visit. He suggested an x-ray to rule out any bone degradation (fortunately, there was none) and then prescribed physical therapy. I was happy about the physical therapy referral because I felt the pain was caused by a muscle imbalance (since we had ruled out any bone issues). I met with the physical therapist, she pinpointed the pain, and was quite effective at lessening it through targeted massage. Then I asked her what exercises I could do to make sure the pain did not reoccur by strengthening whatever muscle imbalance had caused the pain in the first place. She said “you are strong enough”. While I could have taken that as a compliment, I was rather taken aback by her comment. Can you ever be “strong enough”? That is like applying to a college or post-graduate program and not being accepted because you are “smart enough”. Seriously? How is that possible? You can always learn more and become smarter. And likewise, you can always be stronger.

Research shows that only 20 percent of women engage in resistance training two or more times a week. That number could and should be higher. Why? For one, we need to maintain our power. Women generally have a lower proportion of fast power-producing muscle fibers than men (though we typically have a greater proportion of endurance fibers). Therefore, strength training to build and maintain as much strength, power, and force is important, especially with age. We start losing muscle around age 40, if not earlier. That loss, especially of those powerful fast power fibers, becomes more pronounced during menopause as hormonal changes accelerate the loss of lean muscle mass independent of aging. Without intervention, you can lose up to 50 percent of your lean skeletal muscle mass by your 80th birthday.

For some of us, that may seem like a long time from now, but those changes do not happen overnight. The more muscle you build now, the stronger, more resilient, and better you will be as you age. You will also be healthier. Research shows that resistance training is just as, if not more, effective than aerobic exercise at reducing the risk for chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, as well as general disability. And it is never too late to start.  A study of more than 12,500 women and men published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that those who did any amount of strength training on a weekly basis had a 40 to 70 percent reduced risk of developing heart attack, stroke, or death related to heart disease compared with individuals who did no strength training no matter how much aerobic exercise they did. 

Most importantly, strength training can help keep us independent throughout our life.

According to Dr. Stacy T. Sims, who specializes in sports nutrition for women, strength training keeps us independent by keeping our skeleton strong. Considering that nearly 20 percent of U.S. women 50 years and older have osteoporosis of the femur, neck, or lumbar spine, a strong skeleton is important. Weight training helps build and preserve that bone, no matter what your age. Research on premenopausal women aged 40-50 shows that even just six months of heavy resistance training improves bone mineral density of the femoral neck and lumbar vertebrae. Strength training also can help maintain bone mineral density in postmenopausal women and increase bone mineral density of the spine and hip in women with low bone mineral density and osteoporosis. A study where postmenopausal women did back strengthening exercises for two years showed that their risk for spinal compression fractures was 2.7 times lower than their peers who did no back strengthening exercise. And a study of high intensity resistance and impact (like plyometric) training improved markers of bone strength in postmenopausal women with low to very low bone mass with no adverse effects, according to Dr. Sims. 

Resistance training is also good for your mental health. A meta-analysis that included more than 1,800 participants found that resistance training significantly reduced depression symptoms in women and men. In a Harvard study of older adults ages 60 to 84 with depression, 10 weeks of resistance training worked as an effective antidepressant. The more intensely they trained, the better they felt.

No matter your age or whether you are pre- peri- or postmenopausal, strength training should be a critical part of your training to stay strong for life.

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