Give Your Health a Lift

Forget everything you think you know about lifting weights. First, toss out the notion that it's not for you.

Weight lifting is one of the fastest-growing U.S. fitness activities. And the American Heart Association (AHA) recently threw its weight behind weight lifting, too.

The AHA is promoting resistance training, a range of activities that includes working with weights, for its role in preventing heart disease. For people who think cardiovascular health is tied solely to the number of miles walked, run, or biked, this is big news. The AHA cites benefits linked with weight training that aerobic exercise can't match.

Weight lifting and other resistance training are "an important part of any adult's exercise plan," says Mark A. Williams, Ph.D., a Creighton University professor of medicine who helped write the AHA's new stance.

Let's look at six myths that keep people from weight training.

Health benefits

Myth #1: Weight training is only good for building big muscles.

"When people think of weight lifting, they think about big bodybuilders," says Carla Sottovia, Ph.D., assistant fitness director at the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas. "But weight training is more about health and fitness than building big muscles."

Most people are not genetically capable of building huge muscles. Few devote the time and training it would take to produce a Mr. or Ms. Olympia.

No age limits

Myth #2: Weight training is only for young men.

Ironically, two groups that benefit greatly from weight training, women and those older than 40, tend to avoid it.

Weight training is important for women because it helps maintain or increase bone density in both the upper and lower body. That's a big help in battling osteoporosis, a serious threat to more than 35 million American women.

Both women and men lose muscle as they age. Around age 45, muscle mass starts to fall at a rate of 1 percent a year. "It tends to sneak up on people over time," Dr. Williams says. "Unfortunately, as we age, that loss of strength translates into a loss of functioning and independence."

Aerobic exercise does little to halt or reverse this trend, but weight training can. Studies show that even people in their 80s and 90s can increase strength through basic resistance exercise.

Weight management

Myth #3: Weight training won't help with weight loss.

Even at rest, muscle fibers burn calories. Fat cells do not. If you add lean muscle mass, a benefit of weight training, you burn more of the calories you take in each day. That doesn't even take into account the calories you burn while you lift.

By itself, weight training probably won't knock off those extra pounds. Combined with aerobic activity, however, it can be a powerful ally in the battle of the bulge.

Range of alternatives

Myth #4: Weight training always involves lifting weights.

You have alternatives to barbells and the clank of iron plates. "Anything that provides resistance against your muscles provides that same kind of training," Dr. Sottovia says. "It could be free weights. It could be stationary machines. It could be resistance bands. It could even be your own body weight by doing push-ups or pull-ups."

What if you're a beginner? "Machines are particularly helpful because the weight is more controllable," Dr. Williams says. "Once people are more comfortable with the movements they can move on to dumbbells and barbells."

Fit it to your schedule

Myth #5: Weight training takes too much time and money.

Weight training can take as little as an hour a week in two 30-minute sessions, according to Dr. Sottovia. She recommends a day of rest between sessions to let muscles recover.

The cost can range from the price of a gym membership to nothing. That's how much it costs to do push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups.

Join the crowd

Myth #6: Only a fringe group lifts weights.

A growing number of people lift weights. The National Sporting Goods Association says participation rose nearly 38 percent from 2001 to 2006, to 33 million people. But many more of us should think about adding some form of resistance training to our workouts.

"When we talk about getting more exercise, we usually tell people to start with walking," Dr. Williams says. "But it would probably behoove all of us to mention resistance training in the same breath."

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