Aging Well: Strength Training for Women Over 50

After 41 years as a healthcare professional, it’s obvious that Carole Wilson-Tyus is passionate about health and wellness (Photo/Dom O'Halloran).

Women often fear the common myth of appearing masculine and bulking up and, therefore, shy away from lifting weights. 

Unless you are power-lifting and focused on gaining size, take it from me, you will not look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Another common myth that seems to plague the mind of women 50 and up is, “It’s too late to start strength training now.” If that thought has ever crossed your mind, I dare you (I’ll even double dare you) to flip that switch and start strength training now.

While cardio exercise is just as important for cardiovascular health and fat loss, another key component to aging well is strength and/or resistance training. As a former high school athlete, I don’t remember much emphasis placed on strength training back then. This journey for me started at the age of 52. 

What is strength training vs. resistance training?

People often ask, “What’s the difference between strength and resistance training?”

Some will use the two terms interchangeably, however, there is a difference. 

Resistance training involves resistance against your own body weight or an object such as resistance bands, medicine balls or free weights. Basically, anything that creates resistance against gravity. Oftentimes, the focus is on muscular endurance. 

Strength training, on the other hand, lies in the name: strength building. The main focus is on lifting (heavy) weights with a lower number of reps while utilizing time under tension, which is the amount of time a muscle is held under tension during an exercise set. 

The aging process

There is a natural decline in skeletal muscle while aging. Hormonal changes and the aging process can potentially lead to a vast number of health issues in women, which may include osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle. 

Strength training will not only help retain and build lean muscle mass and burn excess calories, but the benefits for both mental and physical health are remarkable. One such physical benefit is the ability to help maintain bone density, therefore avoiding accidents and falls that may have been precipitated due to osteoporosis. 

With daily stresses that are encountered, strength or resistance training allows a woman to appear more vibrant, feel more confident and be empowered to face everyday life challenges, and that confidence translates to a woman aging (exceptionally) well. 

We certainly can’t stop aging, but often times our lifestyle choices will dictate the process. 

In the beginning

First and foremost, I like to advocate safety as my number one rule. After a physician’s clearance, I advise starting slow and using lighter weights. Going gung-ho initially is only going to burn you out. Focus on proper form, alignment and good body mechanics to avoid a potential injury.

As you get stronger, gradually increase your weight. You want a weight that will challenge your ability to lift in order to change your body. Keep in mind, your body doesn’t know how much weight it is lifting, it just knows it’s working hard (so, kudos to you).  

Once strength training has begun, be mindful that the scale will distort your perception of progress. Simply put, weight is gained when muscle is gained, but inches are lost. So, ditch the scale and instead, track how you look and feel in your clothes, and accept the compliments as they come your way. Incidentally, the more muscle we retain or gain, the more calories we naturally burn throughout the day, which eventually leads to a toned, more defined and leaner body composition. 

Remember consistency equates with results. We won’t always feel motivated, so we have to be disciplined. To have retained or gained muscle is indicative of an active lifestyle. 

My story

After 41 years as a healthcare professional, it’s obvious that I’m passionate about health and wellness. That passion has also overlapped in the fitness arena. 

I was born in London, England to Jamaican parents. I spent a portion of my childhood growing up in the lush, green hillside country of Jamaica. Fresh fish and poultry were our main meat source. Organic fruits and vegetables grown by my late father were regular staples within the household. We seldom ever ate out and having soda and a package of banana or plantain chips were out of the norm and definitely a treat. We ate lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

I like the concept that our bodies are made in the kitchen and sculpted in the gym. Few people enjoy talking about diet and exercise but, like it or not, they are synergistic. One must fuel their body with the right nutrients (diet) in order for the body to perform (exercise) at its optimal potential. Minimizing refined carbs and consuming less salt and sugar is a reasonable start to a healthier diet.

Categorically, protein is the main building block to retain, build and repair muscle. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a natural side effect of the fitness experience. Soreness usually peaks in 24-48 hours after a strenuous workout and often subsides within 72 hours or so. For those unaccustomed to a workout, they may feel sore for a longer period. Don’t allow DOMS to discourage you. The soreness is often due to micro-tears in the muscle fibers or minor inflammation and will generally resolve. Refuel with a good source of protein post-workout which will help to repair and strengthen torn muscle fibers and, of course, rest. 

I incorporate various workouts at least five days a week. This includes high-intensity interval training for cardiovascular conditioning and lower-impact workouts such as Pilates for core strength and flexibility. My workouts are scheduled in advance on my calendar. I regard them as being ‘appointments,’ and I don’t make a habit of missing appointments. 

I’m a regular at Capital Region’s Sam B. Cook Healthplex. No offense to any other facility, but after 11 years as a member, this is my other family (besides my church family). 

One may feel uncomfortable in a gym setting for one reason or another. Luckily, you don’t have to attend a gym. You can build muscle with just body-weight exercises, and there are numerous free videos available online for those who would rather work out at home.

I encourage readers to not allow their age to dictate what they can or cannot do. Fitness is all about one’s ability to perform a certain task. There are no limitations due to age. Age is simply the number of years we’ve been walking on this earth. At 63 years young, I regard age as a celebration of life, so let’s celebrate! 

It takes work to change our bodies. Nevertheless, our bodies were created to be adaptable to change. There’s always room for improvement in every aspect of our lives. Let’s enjoy this journey we call life, one rep at a time. Our health is truly our wealth.