It wasn't long ago that we all realized just how unhealthy obesity can be, and skinny was in. Indeed, obesity is a leading cause of preventable death, and thinner people tend to have healthier vital signs and blood markers in general. But generalizations only help you understand so much about the complex notion of a healthy lifestyle.
As physiology and medicine research evolved, so has the understanding of what's healthy. Even though you may be predisposed to one body shape or another -- you can't help that -- research indicates that the healthiest bodies are those that reflect the hard work of a varied exercise routine, including resistance training.
Most People Just Don't Resistance Train
"The American College of Sports Medicine recommends weightlifting for all adults at least twice a week, with three times a week being optimal," says Michele Olson, ACSM fellow and professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama.
Despite what the ACSM recommends, most Americans fall short of that mark. According to a 2011 survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 29 percent of adults meet the minimum recommended weightlifting schedule. Compare that with 52 percent of adults who get the minimum recommended cardio minutes per week, according to the same survey.
That may be because the rush of endorphins that occurs after cardio exercise feels so much better than finishing a good weightlifting set. That doesn't mean that lifting weights is any less beneficial, though.
"You burn calories lifting weights and are engaged in movement when lifting weights, both of which help forestall cardiovascular disease and help us move better with less chance of strains and joint problems," Olson says.
Importance for Women
Weightlifting is especially important for women, even though women are less likely to make a habit of it. Whether it's due to the tired myth that women can bulk up from weightlifting, or because they're just less comfortable in the weight room, it could be costly.
Because women have less muscle than men to begin with, Olson says, "we need to lift weights to prevent the natural loss that occurs with less activity as we age."
So if you've been avoiding lifting weights because you think you'll get mannish or bulky? "That's the last thing you should fret about. Women do not have the levels of anabolic hormones than men have," Olson says, and that's key to building larger muscles.
Fitness expert and personal trainer Joey Thurman of The Lifestyle Renovation agrees. "I do hear that still," he says, but points to female weightlifting in competitions as proof to the contrary. In such competitions, women and teens who weigh less than 100 pounds themselves can lift two to three times their own weight, and they appear no more bulky than other athletic women.
Additionally, studies have provided evidence that weight training has similar effects on blood pressure and cholesterol as aerobic exercise. And especially in older adults, weight training has been shown to improve fitness and mood independent of cardio training.
"Studies link weightlifting to lower anxiety and better overall mental health," says Thurman, who trains both men and women, though his clientele is primarily female.
One of the top reasons women should lift weights is because women are more prone to bone and joint issues as they age. "The muscle tells the bone where to go, not the other way around," Thurman says. "As you increase your muscle strength, you'll improve your posture and support your joints."
Core training is key for balance and joint strength alike. "Balance is highly linked to strong hip and core muscles," Olson says. "Training your core will effectively strengthen those core and balance muscles to prevent falls and lessen the stress to the knee joints."
Too much weight may wreck your joints just as much as injuries, but lifting weights can help prevent both of those. Several independent studies over the past decade have provided evidence that resistance training is just as important to fat loss and health markers as aerobic exercise.
One of the most recent studies appeared in the journal Obesity in December 2014. The large study looked at more than 10,000 men ages 40 and up. The men who did the most weight training had gained less belly fat over a 12-year period than those who did similar amounts of aerobic exercise. A similar study of 164 women was carried out in 2006, with similar results: Weight training helps keep fat at bay as we age better than cardio does.
That's because your muscles are responsible for your metabolism, Thurman says. "The more muscle you have the higher your metabolism, and the more energy you're going to have," he says, and that will help carry you through more workouts.
Keeping Up Appearances
Weight training can improve your appearance in more ways than cardio can. While you can't target fat loss in one area, you can even out your shape by hitting the weight room.
"Of course, cardio can help you lose fat, but it can't shape your body," Thurman says. "If your body shape is a large pear, and you do a lot of cardio to lose weight, you'll just end up looking like a smaller pear."
By consistently training all of your muscles, however, your body will take a more balanced appearance. Additionally, stronger muscles, especially in your core area, will help straighten your spine and improve your posture.
When asked which exercises anyone can start with, Olson and Thurman had similar responses. Here are the exercises they recommend for everyone, but especially beginners. If you're gym-shy or on a budget, don't worry -- most of these you can do at home.
Train your core evenly, Thurman says, which means focusing on your back muscles as much as you do your abdominals. He recommends a plank exercise, where you engage the entire core by hovering above the floor on your hands and toes. To keep proper form, line up your hands and elbows in parallel with your shoulders -- don't put your hands close together. Hold the pose for as long as you can.
Train your legs with squats and lunges, according to both Thurman and Olson; backward lunges put less stress on the knees. To keep proper form, keep your back straight and don't bend weight-bearing knees more than 90 degrees. For squats, bend at the hip like you're sitting down, and keep your feet flat and toes loose.
Train your upper body with any type of rowing motion, the experts say, whether it includes dumbbells or a rowing machine. Pushups are another winner, as are dumbbell curls.
Before starting any routine, you should make sure you're healthy enough and seek advice from a professional. When you do get started, focus on keeping proper form, and worry about increasing difficulty or weight only after you've gotten that down. By that time, you'll already be on your way to a healthier you.