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Don't forget the importance of strength training

"Cardio, cardio, cardio."

Sound advice from my favorite gynecologist as I was leaving her office. While I personally do believe in the many healthful benefits of cardiovascular workouts, perform them faithfully and tout their many benefits to others, I have noticed along the way, that many women (almost 80 percent of them, according to one study) rely only on cardio-based exercise and ignore the all-important strength conditioning component of fitness.

It's often because they're afraid of developing over-sized muscles as typically seen in males, which is very difficult to achieve and requires a special type training, plus men have significantly more testosterone than women. The average woman who works out three to four times a week need not be concerned about bulking up. When women, particularly over the age of 40, avoid strengthening their muscles, they are at risk for a lower resting metabolism, causing fewer calories to be burned and more calories being stored as fat; losing a good defense against osteopenia (softening of the bones) and osteoporosis (bones becoming brittle); and slowly losing strength to perform daily chores or any sports they may enjoy. Women can lose about 4 percent of muscle each decade between the ages of 25 and 50 — even more during their senior years — if they don't participate in any formal resistance training.

On a positive note

Another very motivating reason for women to strength train: it helps to reshape the body.

Studies performed by Wayne Westcott, Ph.D, strength-training consultant for many national organizations such as the American Council on Exercise and the fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., found the average woman who strength trains two to three times a week for two months will gain nearly two pounds of muscle and will lose 3.5 pounds of fat.

We now know that women in their 70s and 80s have built up significant strength through weight training, proving that improvements are possible at any age.

Another stimulating thought ... a study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine tells us people who combine aerobic and resistance training consume significantly fewer daily calories a day than those who do only cardio.

Weight lifting tips for women

Learn proper form: If you have never had any experience with weights, find a qualified personal trainer. You will need to learn proper alignment and safety tips.

Selecting the exercise: Along with isolated movements working specific areas such as on a leg extension machine that targets quadriceps, alternate with a mix of strength exercises that are multi-joint exercises, targeting multiple muscles. An example would be squats as they strengthen all muscles of the thighs, calves, hips, buttocks, and are more effective at simulating ''real-life" movements.

Use enough weight: There is a tendency with some women who do lift weights, to use way too light a weight to "make a difference." Unless you have issues that need to be addressed, the weight should be heavy enough that you reach to fatigue on the last repetition, while still maintaining good form.

Vary exercise pattern: If you constantly repeat the same exercise over and over again, you can become stuck in a plateau as your body adapts to the exercise and in some cases, be dealing with an overuse syndrome. For variety, try mixing up the exercise program: free weights, exercise machines, body-weight exercises, kettle bells, medicine balls, stability balls or resistance bands. Balance challenge: Introduce standing on one leg while performing bicep curls or the lateral and frontal raises shown below. ... even give balance a try while blow drying your hair or talking on the phone. And don't forget the old balance and posture advice that suggests we practice walking with a book on our head. Just don't use too heavy a book.

Ignore the scale: In the beginning, you might not notice much change in your weight, however, you will be losing inches and wearing smaller jeans!

If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Trainer Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. She can be reached at slafit@tampabay.rr.com.

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