Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier

Saturday, October 27, 2012 • Bethesda, MD 20814

Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier

Strength training is an important part of an overall fitness program. Here's what strength training can do for you — and how to get started.

By Mayo Clinic staff

You know exercise is good for you. Ideally, you're looking for ways to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. If your aerobic workouts aren't balanced by a proper dose of strength training, though, you're missing out on a key component of overall health and fitness. Despite its reputation as a "guy" or "jock" thing, strength training is important for everyone. With a regular strength training program, you can reduce your body fat, increase your lean muscle mass and burn calories more efficiently.

Use it or lose it

Muscle mass naturally diminishes with age. "If you don't do anything to replace the lean muscle you lose, you'll increase the percentage of fat in your body," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. "But strength training can help you preserve and enhance your muscle mass — at any age."Strength training also helps you:

•   Develop strong bones. By stressing your bones, strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.

•   Control your weight. As you gain muscle, your body gains a bigger "engine" to burn calories more efficiently — which can result in weight loss. The more toned your muscles, the easier it is to control your weight.

•   Reduce your risk of injury. Building muscle helps protect your joints from injury. It also contributes to better balance, which can help you maintain independence as you age.

•   Boost your stamina. As you get stronger, you won't fatigue as easily.

•   Manage chronic conditions. Strength training can reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic conditions, including arthritis, back pain, depression, diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis.

•   Sharpen your focus. Some research suggests that regular strength training helps improve attention for older adults.

Consider the options

Strength training can be done at home or in the gym.Consider the options:

•   Body weight. You can do many exercises with little or no equipment. Try push-ups, pull-ups, abdominal crunches and leg squats.

•   Resistance tubing. Resistance tubing is inexpensive, lightweight tubing that provides resistance when stretched.

•   Free weights. Barbells and dumbbells are classic strength training tools.

•   Weight machines. Most fitness centers offer various resistance machines.

Metabolism and Weight Loss: How You Burn Calories

Find out how metabolism affects weight, the truth behind slow metabolism and how to burn more calories.

By Mayo Clinic staff

You've probably heard people blame their weight on a slow metabolism, but what does that mean? Is metabolism really the culprit? And if so, is it possible to rev up your metabolism to burn more calories?While it's true that metabolism is linked to weight, it may not be in the way you expect. In fact, contrary to common belief, a slow metabolism is rarely the cause of excess weight gain. Although your metabolism influences your body's basic energy needs, it's your food and beverage intake and your physical activity that ultimately determine how much you weigh.

Metabolism: Converting food into energy

Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex biochemical process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function. Even when you're at rest, your body needs energy for all its "hidden" functions, such as breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells.The number of calories your body uses to carry out these basic functions is known as your basal metabolic rate — what you might call metabolism. Several factors determine your individual basal metabolic rate:

•   Your body size and composition. The bodies of people who are larger or have more muscle burn more calories, even at rest.

•   Your sex. Men usually have less body fat and more muscle than do women of the same age and weight, burning more calories.

•   Your age. As you get older, the amount of muscle tends to decrease and fat accounts for more of your weight, slowing down calorie burning.Energy needs for your body's basic functions stay fairly consistent and aren't easily changed. Your basal metabolic rate accounts for about 60 to 75 percent of the calories you burn every day.In addition to your basal metabolic rate, two other factors determine how many calories your body burns each day:

•   Food processing (thermogenesis). Digesting, absorbing, transporting and storing the food you consume also takes calories. This accounts for about 10 percent of the calories used each day. For the most part, your body's energy requirement to process food stays relatively steady and isn't easily changed.

•   Physical activity. Physical activity and exercise — such as playing tennis, walking to the store, chasing after the dog and any other movement — account for the rest of the calories your body burns up each day. Physical activity is by far the most variable of the factors that determine how many calories you burn each day.

Metabolism and weight

It may be tempting to blame your metabolism for weight gain. But because metabolism is a natural process, your body generally balances it to meet your individual needs. That's why if you try so-called starvation diets, your body compensates by slowing down these bodily processes and conserving calories for survival. Only in rare cases do you get excessive weight gain from a medical problem that slows metabolism, such as Cushing's syndrome or having an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).

Unfortunately, weight gain is most commonly the result of eating more calories than you burn.

To lose weight, then, you need to create an energy deficit by eating fewer calories, increasing the number of calories you burn through physical activity, or both. With a regular strength training program, you can reduce your body fat, increase your lean muscle mass and burn calories more efficiently.

Exercise and the Heart

Dr. Kerry J. Stewart, Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Dr. Stewart’s clinical and research interests include cardiovascular disease rehabilitation and prevention, and peripheral arterial disease. 

How exercise helps the heart

Exercise has many positive effects on heart health. A regular exercise routine can help:

•   Lower blood pressure

•   Lessen risk of developing diabetes

•   Maintain healthy body weight

•   Reduce inflammation throughout the body

“One of the key benefits of exercise is that it helps to control or modify many of the risk factors for heart disease,” says Dr. Kerry J. Stewart, Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “Smoking is another big factor for heart disease, and if you exercise regularly you’re unlikely to take on a bad habit like smoking, or quit if you already are a smoker.”

Additional benefits of exercise:

•   Improves the muscles’ ability to pull oxygen out of the blood, reducing the need for the heart to pump more blood to the muscles

•   Reduces stress hormones that can put an extra burden on the heart

•   Works like a beta blocker to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure

•   Increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol and helps control triglycerides

A number of studies have also shown that people who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer a sudden heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac event.

While exercise has benefits in and of itself, the best way to prevent heart disease is to combine exercise with a healthy diet. Exercise alone can help with weight loss over a long period of time. But a short-term approach is to reduce the number of calories you take in through diet, while increasing the calories you use through exercise.

Ideal exercise for the heart

The best exercise has a positive effect on the heart and improves the skeletal muscle system. The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine both recommend combining aerobic exercise (jogging, swimming, biking) with resistance training (moderate weightlifting). Together, these two categories of exercise produce the greatest benefit for preventing and managing heart disease.

Exercise and pregnancy

If you’re having a healthy pregnancy, and you exercised regularly before you were pregnant, it’s beneficial to keep up a moderate routine. This regimen can include walking, swimming or bike riding. You’ll continue to receive the same cardiovascular benefits.If you’re pregnant and everyday exercise has not been part of your life, you should probably stick with a milder exercise. In both instances, it makes sense to seek advice from your physician.

Sources for exercise intelligence

The National Institute of Health, the American Heart Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine are all good sources for assistance in choosing the right exercise routine. Johns Hopkins has a clinical exercise center which offers medically supervised programs and exercise guidelines based on scientific evidence. We evaluate fitness levels and consider medical history before starting people on exercise regimens. There are similar medical fitness centers throughout the country.

How much exercise and how often?

General guidelines call for a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training. Try to get in a minimum of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling or swimming at least five days a week. Do moderate weightlifting to tone muscles and build muscle endurance at least twice a week, or frequently enough to cover the major muscle groups.

How do you know when you’re making progress?

There are many ways to chart your exercise progress. Three of the most common are target heart rate for aerobic exercise, number of repetitions for weight training, and fat vs. muscle body composition.

•   Target heart rate – The more fit you are, the harder you’ll need to work to reach your target heart rate. For example, in the first month you may need to walk 3 mph to reach a heart rate of 120, while in the second month in order to reach the same heart rate, you need to walk 4 mph or find a steeper hill. Your fitness is improved and your heart is working more efficiently.

•   Reps – The more weight you can lift 12-15 times without straining, the stronger and more durable your muscles are. For example, you start out struggling to curl a 15-lb. dumbbell 15 times, and then add three to five pounds when it becomes easy.

•   Body composition – Exercise more and your body will change shape: you’ll lose fat, specifically around the waist, and gain muscle. A looser pair of pants or skirt is a distinct sign of progress.

Knowing when you’re overdoing it

Setting a target heart rate with a qualified trainer or health professional is the simplest way to keep your workout within a healthy range.

•   Stay within your target heart rate, and you’re working out at the right level.

•   Go above your target heart rate, and you’re probably working too hard.

•   Stay below your target, and you’re not working hard enough to gain the most cardiovascular benefit.An important sign of overwork is fatigue and soreness that stays with you longer than a day or two after you exercise. Any persistent pain could mean you’ve overused or have injured a muscle.

How to stick with an exercise routine

The key to a successful exercise routine is staying interested and motivated. Here are a few ways to keep exercise a lifelong habit:

•   Set aside a specific amount of time each day for exercise and work it into your schedule.

•   Work out with a friend. Or join a gym and work out in a group. Either scenario creates mutual support and healthy competition to keep things interesting.

•   Keep a simple log to chart your progress. Create your own record or graph on a spreadsheet, or use one of the many programs available on the Internet.

•   If you jog or cycle, use a heart rate meter or speedometer to help you set and reach goals.

Using exercise to tune up your cardiovascular health

“If we compare a person’s initial fitness response to testing, to responses three to six months later, we see progress,” says Dr. Stewart. “The oxygen consumption will be higher. The time on the treadmill will be longer. The heart rate and blood pressure will be lower. It’s like tuning up your engine. Only the engine is your heart and the body’s circulatory system for distributing blood, and it’s working more efficiently.”