Weight training has long been part of my life.
When I first worked for London Central YMCA as a course tutor, it was the course I delivered the most – nearly everyone wanted to be a Gym Instructor. It appealed to people with Sports Science Degrees, as well as those with no formal education. And I think it is because we need Gym Instructors – because quite frankly, it is scary going into a gym for a first time. The weights look intimidating, everyone seems to know what they are doing, and most people are in their own “bubble” which does not invite a chat of “so how do you do this”. It is even an insurance requirement that you do an “induction” before using the gym, thus highlighting its “danger”, and making it off putting.
So why do we need to lift weights? Go to the gym? Overload our bodies?
A lot of this is to do with more modern society where everyday menial tasks and chores are now taking up with machines, and daily cleaning or getting to work is a simple click of a button. We may think we have advanced our lifestyle, but much of our current choices are actually hindering our health.
The Diet and Fitness Café came about as you know, from the report on the direct cost to the NHS for the current obesity situation, and the more painful and personal cost of health with nearly 80% of all Type 2 Diabetes being linked to Obesity, 70% of all cardiovascular disease, 42% of bowel & breast cancer and with 3 million people estimated to have osteoporosis and 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men expected to break a bone due to osteoporosis, then it is time we look again at the benefits of weight training – and the risks of not doing it.
First though, with the emphasis somewhat more on losing body fat, I am going to talk about how weight training can help us get rid of the accumulated stored white fat – and in particular, the intrabdominal fat that surrounds our organs. There is substantial evidence that weight training can be of great value in helping us deal with obesity. This is so important. We know that all forms of exercise are of value when we are trying to improve our cardiometabolic profile, but weights allow us to train if we feel we are too “heavy” to run, or we have an injury that stops us doing cardio work - as well as providing the additional health benefits to our bone and joint health.
Let’s look at some of the science - in May 2021, a review of over 149 papers concluded that:
“The benefits of exercise include reductions of body weight, total body fat and visceral adipose tissue. Although the effect on weight and fat loss is of relatively small magnitude (only a few kilograms difference), the reduction of visceral fat is likely to enhance cardiometabolic health in these patients. Importantly, visceral fat loss can occur even when participants experience small or no weight loss.”
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an all-out heavy weight training session to repeat the benefits. In a study in 2019, there was a significant reduction in abdominal fat distribution after a 12-week low-volume resistance training programme. And if you are also trying to be in calorie deficit to help with removing stored white fat, then you will be pleased to hear that a study in 2019 showed that a total body resistance training programme combined with a calorie deficit was a viable strategy in reducing body fat whilst preserving lean mass in obese, premenopausal women and that weight training helped to optimise changes in body composition.
When we think about weight training, or see adverts for this, it tends to be of young fit people – which is disappointing, as weights provides a great, and important, training mechanism for all ages. As we get older, we tend to lose bone mass (osteopenia) and muscle mass (sarcopenia) resulting in a loss of our normal range of movement and general overall strength. We know that to increase bone mass, that diet and exercise are essential. Bone mass is created, or lost, depending on the “stress” placed on it - so stress a bone with weights or exercise and it grows stronger, place little or no stress on the body, then the bone gets weaker - 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 50 will suffer a bone fracture through osteoporosis and weakened bones. And a posture that is affected by osteoporosis in the spine is more likely to have pelvic floor problems. There is much to say about the benefits of weight training – whether improving obesity, helping bone strength, overall fitness and helping range of movement. So how to start?
The general guidelines are to do 2 x weights session a week, lifting between 8-12 reps – although more reps and a lighter weight is also a good starting point if you have not done this kind of exercise before. Part of what we are doing in the initial stages is to “condition” the body – to prepare the muscle, bones, ligaments, and tendons – and therefore even your own body weight is a great starting point.
Pilates and other load bearing exercises can be an unlimited source of joy to build resilience, and including the use of bands and lighter weights is a good transitioning point. But nothing works as well as lifting more than you are currently doing, so think about investing in some weights. Small dumbbells are a good starting point, and not too heavy on the purse strings. Leave them somewhere obvious and simply do the reps each time you walk past. The gym of course is one of the best places to go, and there are many trained instructors there (see start of the story!) that can help you with using the machines. Think of it as you help for the NHS as well as the help to your own body. A few months will show you increased vitality, improved range of movement and better mood. Don’t be shy. Don’t get put off by the adverts with fit young bodies -we all age eventually, and weights can reverse the affects of ageing when done well and supported by good nutrition. Enjoy!