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Strength training, aerobics can help enhance your life

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 28, 2002

When we are very young and spontaneously active, we are in the process of building a healthy foundation for our future lives. As we become older we need to defend and protect that which we have created. Continuing to exercise our bodies as we age will help to maintain the muscle power our bodies so need to prevent premature aging.

Muscles and bones, if left unattended, will begin to lose strength around age 30. Between the ages of 50 and 70, strength can decline by 15 percent each decade and rapidly decrease in the later years. ( Consumer Reports On Health, May 2001). In the early '80s, the emphasis on exercise research for seniors was mostly focused on aerobic activity.

Aerobics continue to play a powerful role for strengthening the heart muscle and lowering the risk of many illnesses, but as we age, we also need to preserve or increase our muscular strength; the foundation we built years ago will crumble without it.

Once upon a time it was believed that muscle loss and the accompanying loss of strength were an inevitable part of aging. The restoration of muscle and strength was thought to be an impossible task. The initial strength programs for seniors consisted of a timid approach, fearing that anything but the lightest weights could cause injuries and place too much strain on the heart muscle.

It didn't go unnoticed that the people participating in these earlier programs were not making any gains in strength. Through persistent and progressive studies, the scientists involved established that the inability to increase muscle and strength as we age was a myth.

It is now known that as little as 15 minutes of strength conditioning exercises, performed two times a week, will strengthen the weakened muscles and bones of seniors. The tendons, which attach muscle to bone, and the ligaments, which connect bone to bone, will also be strengthened.

Some other known plusses from strength training are improved balance and posture; reduced risk of fractures from osteoporosis; increased flexibility; strengthened muscles for aerobic and daily activities; increased metabolic rate; better freedom of movement; trimmer body; and increased energy and feelings of self satisfaction.

It is natural for people interested in starting their first exercise mission to have many concerns and questions. Here is a sampling.

Is it enough to just do strength training exercises?

Aerobics and strength training are both good for you, and I would recommend you add aerobics to the mix. By doing aerobic exercises you will be strengthening your cardiovascular system, which includes heart, lungs and blood vessels. Aerobic, which means "with oxygen," is systemic (whole body) activity that will increase your breathing and heart rate. Aerobic activities are those you can sustain for long periods such as walking, jogging, swimming, rowing, aerobic dance and bicycling. In contrast, strength training is an anaerobic (without oxygen) exercise.

There are also machines that will give you a cardiovascular workout. The elliptical cross trainer works both your upper and lower body as you move your legs and arms in a forward and backward motion. Other machines that can give you an aerobic exercise workout are ski machines, stationary bicycles, treadmills and stair steppers.

What is the difference between repetitions and sets?

Repetitions are the number of times you lift and lower the weight; lifting upward, then lowering the weight would be one repetition. A set is a group of repetitions that you perform without resting; one set could consist of eight to 15 repetitions.

What is the difference in training between muscular strength and muscular endurance exercise?

If you are pursuing the strongest muscles that your genetics can offer, you would work with much heavier weights and perform fewer repetitions, perhaps six or eight, or even fewer. If your personal goal is to improve your health, develop moderate gains in strength, tone and firm the muscles, you would use lighter weights and do more repetitions, perhaps eight to 15 reps; you will be developing muscular endurance as the muscle is able to perform longer.

I have never done any aerobic or strength exercises before. How should I begin?

Just as you have to learn to walk before you run, you don't jump from a sedentary lifestyle into a vigorous five-times-a-week workout. To achieve an aerobic workout, walking is probably the easiest way to get yourself going, beginning with comfortable 8- to 10-minute walks. Gradually increase your walking time by 2 to 5 minutes a week; continue until you can walk 45 minutes to an hour at one time.

If you want to jog but avoid the repetitious pounding on your hips, knees and ankles that can occur from running, you might want to try the elliptical cross trainer. This aerobic machine is easy on your joints and will give you the benefits of running, cycling, stair climbing and cross country skiing.

If you are just beginning a strength workout on a machine, work without any added weight until you learn the correct form. If using free weights, begin with a light weight that is comfortable for you to lift. Make sure you are doing a balanced workout. You need to strengthen opposing muscle groups: biceps (front of upper arm) and triceps (back of upper arm), hamstrings (back of thighs) and quadriceps (front of thighs); backs and chest. You might like to work with a trainer several times until you feel more knowledgeable about what you are doing. Don't try imitating others; not everyone is working with the proper form.

What is the best cardiovascular machine?

If you listen to television commercials, you will hear more than one machine being proclaimed as the best. The best aerobic machine will be the one you enjoy using. It isn't so much the specific cardio machine you use, rather, it is what you do with what you have. How hard and how long you use the machine will dictate the quality of the workout.

If I want to combine an aerobic and strength program, which should I do first, cardio or weight training?

There are some that would say do strength workouts first because you will be increasing the amount of fat used while doing the cardio workout. There is no current research to validate that claim. If your primary goal is to increase aerobic endurance or to lose weight, then you might want to do the cardiovascular exercise first, while you have the most energy, before your muscles become fatigued from lifting weights. If you are more motivated to increase muscular strength, then do strength training before you dilute your energy from the aerobic workout. If you choose to combine a cardio and strength workout in the same session, it really does not matter which comes first.

What is the correct speed for lifting weights?

There are many variations on this theme, but lifting weights slowly and with control is not only considered more challenging to the muscle but is a safer way. The general recommendation is to take two seconds on the lift, a one-second pause, and then four seconds to lower the weight. For the more advanced exerciser, there is a new "super slow" type of training that suggests you can build more muscle by increasing the tension for longer periods

If I work out consistently, how long before I will begin to see results?

The key word here is consistency. If you begin working out on a regular basis, you should notice an increase in energy and stamina within a few weeks. Your blood pressure could improve as well. If your eating habits are under control and you commit to exercise on a regular basis, you should begin noticing some positive strides toward weight loss in about six weeks. Some people lifting weights will not see a difference on the scales; they will lose inches, not pounds. The muscle you are gaining weighs more than fat.

How often should I work out?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends you exercise 20 to 60 minutes three to five days a week, for both health and fitness. For a sedentary person just beginning an exercise program, three days a week may be sufficient, but gains will be strengthened with more exercise; cholesterol levels, body composition and cardiovascular health all will benefit from more exercise. To enjoy basic gains in strength you only need to lift weights two to three times a week.

How can I get a flat stomach?

There is no such thing as "spot reducing"; you cannot work one muscle group and expect the body fat to disappear. Abdominal exercises will strengthen and tone the muscles, but they cannot remove the body fat. The only way to lose that unwanted fat is eating less and exercising more.

Are there any exercises that I could do to strengthen my lower back?

The lower back needs to be both strong and flexible; the pelvic tilt is one of the best exercises you can do for this, as it both strengthens and stretches the muscles attached to the spine. This exercise focuses on lower back, abdominals and hamstrings.

Lying on your back on a comfortable surface, bend knees and place feet flat on the floor, about hip width apart. Gently contract your abdominal muscles, pressing your back down to the floor; tighten the buttocks, slightly lifting the tailbone off the floor an inch or two. Hold this position for a short time, then slowly lower the buttocks to the floor.

Some dos and don'ts for the pelvic tilt exercise: Keep your shoulders, head and neck relaxed; do not allow your back to arch off the floor when you are lowering your hips downward; when you tilt your pelvis upward, keep your lower back on the floor.

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