Women! Let’s Rush the Gym and Embrace Strength Training

By Zoe Kung

July 2024 U-40
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GROWING UP, I often heard adults in my family complain about their inevitable decline in strength and increasing frailty, resulting in higher dependence on others in their daily life. My aunt, who is now in her late 70s, has steadily lost weight—most of which is muscle mass—and has lost the independence in doing many things. For instance, while she used to be able to ride a motorcycle to run errands, she now finds that she no longer has the strength to move it around.

“I am old now, I don’t have the strength anymore,” seems to be the general concession among older adults here.

I, too, have grown up believing that loss of mobility and independence inevitably come with old age. It was not until I started strength training and studied it more that I realised how misinformed we are; that with physical exercise, especially ones that focus on maintaining and building muscle mass, the progression of sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) can be delayed and its severity lessened. The disease, characterised by accelerated loss of strength and reduced physical performance, is associated not only with higher risks of fragility fracture, disability and functional impairment, but also premature mortality among otherwise healthy adults.[1]

What Science Says

A new study finds women who do strength training exercises two to three days a week are more likely to live longer and have a lower risk of death from heart disease, compared to women who do none. Martha Gulati, the director of preventive cardiology at Cedars Sinai and an author of the study, says, “What surprised us the most was the fact that women who do muscle strengthening had a reduction in their cardiovascular mortality by 30%. We don’t have many things that reduce mortality in that way.”

In fact, many studies have shown that muscle mass, instead of the more commonly measured and scrutinised body mass index (BMI), is a much better predictor of life expectancy,[2] while another study indicates that the decline in handgrip strength in older women is associated with cognitive decline.[3]

These findings are illuminating of public health awareness. It begs the question why doctors and health professionals, especially in Malaysia, are still predominantly prescribing solely cardiovascular exercises for general health, instead of a combination of that and strength training (also known as resistance training or weightlifting).

“The greater your muscle mass, the lower your risk of death,” says Dr. Arun Karlamangla, a professor in the geriatrics division at the Geffen School. “Rather than worrying about weight or BMI, we should be trying to maximise and maintain muscle mass.”[4]

Furthermore, the benefits of strength training are not limited to muscle building alone; it can also improve cardiovascular function, reduce the risk of sarcopenia, and even strengthen joints.

Do You Even Lift?

In many parts of the world, and especially in Malaysia, weightlifting is not popular among women—though it has been steadily gaining foothold in recent years. Considered a “masculine” sport, women shun strength training for various reasons, including fears of looking “bulky” or becoming “too muscular”, and concerns about injury.

“I am not just a woman who lifts,” says Melizarani T. Selva, “I am an Indian woman who lifts. So much of my culture conditions women to be soft, demure and docile. Exercise of any kind is associated with weight loss and even then, Indian women are often told to run a mile and eat less carbs to maintain an hourglass ‘saree figure’.”

Even when women do overcome cultural and societal barriers to weightlifting, the weights section in gyms, predominantly occupied by men, can be especially intimidating to a female beginner.

“The weights section is a hyper-masculine place—seemingly grumpy big dudes grunting and pushing massive plates with abandon,” laughs Melizarani.

Lydia Lim, who has been weightlifting since 2016 when she started her first job, recalls that there were no other women around her who lifted back then. Unable to afford a personal trainer, she figured it out through watching YouTube videos—“I must have watched hundreds of hours of them by now.”

Meanwhile, Melizarani engaged a personal trainer when she first started to practise weightlifting correctly and stay injury-free.

“I was determined to find a coach who was willing to take the time to understand my capacities, respect my polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) limitations and push me accordingly.

“For the first year, our main focus was on building my gym independence, alongside learning correct form. This was instrumental for my development because ultimately, I need to be able to practise weightlifting independently at any gym. My coach taught me proper gym etiquette and how to take up space at the weight racks. It took a while to quell the anxieties of being the only non-man at the barbell station, but I persistently showed up and got my bench presses done without feeling shy.”

Strength training, as it turns out, is incredibly effective in burning fat. By building muscle tissue, your resting metabolic rate, or the total number of calories your body burns when at rest, increases, leading to greater weight loss. A new study on the molecular underpinnings of strength training has also shed light on how it may also shrink fat by changing the inner workings of cells. The study found that after weight training, muscles create and release little bubbles of genetic material that can flow to fat cells, jump-starting processes there related to fat burning.[5]

Improved Approach To Food

Many women who weightlift also tend to have a better relationship with food, possibly because of how food is seen as fuel to a good, hard workout, and because of the fact that protein is especially important in muscle recovery and building.

“My relationship with food has improved significantly. I am more conscious of my protein intake and nearly everything I consume is geared to serve my ability to lift better. Weightlifting has empowered me to look towards functional strength—I am more invested in being able to deadlift twice my bodyweight,” says Melizarani.

Cecilia T, who started weightlifting more than two years ago, concurs. “Back then, I was doing mainly cardio: running and hiking, mostly. I was skinny, but my body fat percentage was relatively high— around 26%.

“But since starting weightlifting and learning about the importance of eating enough protein, I found that I ate much more than I used to, but my body fat percentage has dropped. I now even have a six pack,” she laughs.

Personally, weightlifting has given me a boost in self-confidence. The process of becoming physically stronger inspires an appreciation for what my body can do, instead of how it looks. And this has spread to all areas of my life.

Lydia Lim agrees. “The most rewarding part is being able to see yourself in a new light as someone who is capable of doing difficult things. You are better able to trust yourself to fail and learn new things along the way.”

For Melizarani, wearing red lipstick every time she lifts has become a self-affirming ritual. “It serves as war paint, a tiny act of rebellion to have more femininity in the weights section. This sport has made me more confident and sure-footed in all areas of my life. Nothing seems too scary or too difficult to me these days.”

Given its many advantages, it is a shame more women are not encouraged to take up weightlifting. But the future looks positive—in my gym, I have noticed more women in the free weights area.

“The science is clear—strength training is one of the things that has a very high return on investment. It’s okay to have short-term goals to motivate you from time to time, but it’s also important to enjoy the activity regardless of the outcome—that’s how habits form!”

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10170113/

[2]https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-38893-0#:~:text=other%20 age%20populations.-,Conclusion,in%20 female%20nonagenarians%20and%20 centenarians.

[3]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7890203/#:~:text=Handgrip%20strength%20predicted%20 accelerated%201,et%20al.%2C%20 2011).

[4] https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/older-adults-build-muscleand-271651

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/21/well/move/weighttraining-fat.html

Zoe Kung

occasionally dabbles in writing but mostly just wants to stay anonymous.


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