Weightlifting, not just for a medal

W. Gifford-Jones, MD and Diana Gifford-Jones
Common Sense Health

When asked how they exercise, people often report jogging, bicycling or walking.

But what about weightlifting? Authorities say that picking up weights is not about winning a medal. Rather, as we age, strength exercises can help circumvent medical problems.

Take if from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who famously remarked, “The best activities for your health are pumping and humping.”

Let’s leave the humping part aside for now. When it comes to pumping weights, there are a lot of myths. First, lifting dumbbells is not just for building muscles. In fact, it helps to fight one of the problems that can change your life in a split second.

Getting older is invariably fatal. But long before the final event, we begin to lose bone density, usually starting in our thirties. By age 70, many people have lost 40 percent of their peak bone mass. This often sets the stage for a fractured hip in the event of a fall.

Osteoporosis (thinning of bones) make bones look like swiss cheese, and it can have tragic consequences. For instance, among the elderly who fall and break a hip, there is a high chance of imminent death. A large population-based study showed that one in three adults aged 50 and over died within 12 months of suffering a hip fracture.

Even when survived, hip fractures have a devastating impact on quality of life by reducing independence and increasing social isolation. Moves to assisted living are common.

No one will ever forget the telephone call that a parent has fallen and fractured a hip. And if they’re 75 years of age or over, in spite of all that can be done medically, the risk of dying within one year is 40 percent or higher.

Lifting weights decreases the risk of fractures by building up muscle strength, slowing bone loss, and helping with balance.

Muscle strength is an important factor for the elderly to maintain functional independence – the ability to carry out daily activities such as walking up a flight of stairs, going grocery shopping, and bathing without help. People who neglect basic core strength eventually find it hard to get up from a toilet seat. It comes as a terrible realization when individuals must acknowledge dependency on others to meet their daily needs.

Weightlifting slows bone loss, and some studies show that regular strength exercises can improve bone mass. How does it work? Exercises that involve use of strength – including weightlifting, but also walking, gardening and even dancing – place forces on your bones, stimulating your body do regular maintenance. Don’t forget the importance of good nutrition, including adequate calcium and vitamin D.

Strength training helps with managing or losing weight too, as it can increase metabolism to help burn more calories. Getting rid of excess fat should be high priority for those overweight, as it’s linked to chronic inflammation. Furthermore, obesity triggers type 2 diabetes, increasing the risk of blindness, kidney failure, leg amputation and heart attack.

Building muscle and stronger bones will also mean better balance since it works the systems that keep you stable, and that will reduce your risk of falls.

Strength training can have another benefit when exercises work the body’s core. Most people carrying extra weight aren’t thinking about the ineloquently named non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). But it affects 25 percent of the population worldwide. It’s fast becoming the number one reason for liver transplant.

NAFLD involves visceral fat, fat that accumulates around the liver and other abdominal organs, and is accompanied by inflammation. A serious problem, it can increase the risk of cirrhosis and cancer.

So, grab some weights and start pumping.

The weekly column by W. Gifford-Jones, MD has been published without interruption for 45 years. The same no-nonsense tradition now continues in a father-daughter collaboration. Sign-up at www.docgiff.com to receive our weekly e-newsletter. For comments, contact-us@docgiff.com.