Why lifting is the new running for women over 40
Six months ago I was having a middle-aged meltdown. Juggling too many professional projects, I wasn't sleeping properly and lacked focus during the day.
I felt weak and old and emotionally fragile - anything from a broken plate to a bank statement seemed to overwhelm me with panic.
The treadmill running sessions I was doing were exhausting me and not shifting inches from the places I wanted them shifted (waist and thighs). So I did what any self-respecting Mid-Life-Crisis-ist would do: I got a personal trainer I couldn't afford.
Suzi Sorokova is a 24-year-old trainer at the gym I frequent, Gymbox in Stratford, east London. During our first session, I expected sweat-filled jumps but instead got slow-refined weight lifting moves - old-fashioned bar type squats and chin-ups.
Though mortified and worried I'd bulk up, six weeks later I was sleeping better, felt more focused at work and my clothes were actually looser. Six months later I have dropped a dress size, lost two inches off my hips, one inch off my waist, can squat my own body weight and, at 46, have found a new confidence in my body.
I'm not alone in my newfound fondness for weight lifting. Strength training with weights was fourth in the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) fitness trend predictions for 2016 behind wearable tech, high intensity interval training (HIIT) and body weight training.
Look around most gyms now and you'll notice the weights area is no longer peopled only by grunting Michelin-men, but men and, increasingly, women with average sized bodies looking toned and happy and doing old-fashioned lifting moves previously reserved for power-lifters, such as kettle bell swings, press ups and bench press lifts.
Trainer Mike Ryan put Hollywood hunk Hugh Jackman (47) on a regime of traditional lifts and bench presses to get him in shape for the latest Wolverine film and, where they once did it covertly to avoid tainting their damsel-like images - Marilyn Monroe is said to have trained with weights; while Jean Harlow used resistance bands - more Hollywood women are lifting than ever. Cameron Diaz (43), Jennifer Lopez (46), Halle Barry (49) and Jane Seymour - who at 65 looks amazing - all swear by weight training.
Body benefits for over-40s
If preventing middle-aged spread is a priority, strength training is key. Each decade after 30, muscle declines by 3pc to 8pc and because it has a higher metabolic rate than fat, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, not only during exercise, but also at rest.
"Muscle requires more blood and oxygen to be supplied to it than fat and that increases the energy expenditure the body has to do to maintain it," explains Professor John Brewer, head of sports and exercise science at St Mary's University Twickenham.
Lifting workouts such as circuit training may burn about 200 calories while you're doing them, but unlike cardiovascular exercise such as running, they burn some 25pc more additional calories in the first hour following your workout and may keep your resting metabolic rate elevated by 100 calories a day for up to 72 hours afterwards.
It takes a surprisingly short time to build muscle. My sessions with Suzi were only twice a week, half an hour each and the results were impressive.
One large study from the Harvard School of Public Health followed 10,500 US men aged over 40 for 12 years and found that of all the activities they did, weight training for 20 minutes three times a week had the greatest effect on preventing age-related abdominal fat.
"Muscle builds up quickly, even from the first session of exercise when you get sore, that minor damage repairs itself and you become stronger," says Professor Brewer. "Within two weeks you should start to see benefits."
Weight training can also help to control blood sugar levels in patients with Type-2 diabetes and one meta-analysis concluded that resistance training should be recommended in the prevention and management of Type-2 diabetes.
Moreover, it might help age-related bone loss too, as with age in women comes a decrease in oestrogen, a hormone that helps with calcium production. Studies found that strength training improved bone density in post-menopausal women.
"Previously it was thought only aerobic exercise could deliver positive mood benefits," says Dr Claire Marie Roberts, a lecturer in sports psychology at Worcester University. "But we now know that resistance and weight training can have the same or better effect on the brain by increasing the production of serotonin, the brain hormone that makes us feel good."
Research from the University of South Carolina found that women who were put on a twice-weekly programme of resistance training had a staggering 60pc decrease in anxiety levels and lowered levels of irritability in only six weeks. The effect also seemed best after moderate, not intense, strength training.
And while we know all forms of exercise improve depression, a review of 25 randomised controlled trials involving exercise training of depressed patients found strength training had twice the mood benefits that aerobic exercise alone had (though the best result was when patients did both).
Studies of depressed patients have also found that those who did strength training improved their sleeplessness- a key symptoms of depression - by 30pc.
Strength training taps into the brain's reward system quickly by stimulating the neural mechanisms that make people feel better.
Anna Magee is the editor of healthista.com