It’s good to be STRONG!
Working your muscles doesn’t have to mean pumping iron, Arnie-style, in the gym. Here’s how strength training can benefit your health and help support your ongoing weight loss—plus some surprising ways to do it!
Have you ever carried home heavy bags of groceries, or spent a Saturday afternoon digging in the backyard? Then congratulations, you’ve been giving your muscles a workout! Done regularly, muscle-strengthening activities bring a whole host of rewards—including helping your weight loss. And while many of us associate strength training with long hours in the gym, there are actually many simple ways to work your muscles effectively, such as yoga, hillwalking and dancing. Read on to find out how and why muscle strengthening could help to improve your well-being and support your weight loss journey, and discover some easy (and free!) ways to get started.
Which muscles should I work?
Skeletal muscles—the ones that are attached to your bones—allow you to stand, sit down and move in all sorts of ways, and there are well over 600 of them in the human body. They range from large muscles, such as the gluteus maximus in your butt that you can squeeze and relax at will, to tiny ones, like those inside your ears that you can’t feel at all. And knowing how to strengthen the major muscle groups (in your legs, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) isn’t just important for athletes and sportspeople. It’s recommended that all adults do muscle strengthening activities on at least two days a week for good health, along with aiming for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular activity, such as brisk walking, five times a week.
What health improvements can I expect?
“Strengthening activities keep muscles, bones and joints strong and healthy,” says Dr Jacquie Lavin, Slimming World’s head of nutrition and research. “They also help maintain your muscle mass, which you tend to lose as you age, and can improve your mobility, balance and posture. And working your muscles can have an impact on your health in all sorts of ways, such as helping lower your blood pressure and maintain healthy blood glucose levels.” Studies have also suggested that strength training just a couple of days a week might help lower cholesterol, reduce aches and pains, lower the risk of injury, and improve your overall fitness. And by improving your posture, muscle-strengthening activities can give you a better body shape. They also tone and tighten up your muscles, helping your body look leaner—meaning you could often drop a dress size without seeing a large weight loss on the scale.
How can a strength workout help with weight loss?
“Your muscles burn energy, or calories, even when you’re resting,” explains Dr Lavin. “You tend to lose some muscle along with body fat as you lose weight, and your metabolic rate—the amount of energy you burn—falls. However, doing muscle-strengthening activities while you’re slimming will help you to maintain your muscle mass and your metabolic rate.” Scientists have also noticed that the body gets an extra calorie-burning kick straight after every exercise session. According to one study by Wayne State University in Detroit, the extra energy you burn as your body repairs your muscles after training revs up your metabolism for up to 72 hours. “Keeping your muscles strong has also been shown to help you maintain your weight loss,” says Dr Lavin. And if you’ve already started following Slimming World’s Body Magic activity program, then you might well be doing these kinds of activities already.
What are the wider well-being benefits?
Far from making them feel “pumped up”, many people find that working their muscles earlier in the day actually helps them switch off at night and their sleep improves. “Your body wants to recover afterwards and this encourages you to fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply,” says Dr Lavin. “And when your sleep quality improves, there are many other trickle-down benefits that come with it, such as increased energy and better mood.”
Which strengthening activity will work for me?
To make any move a strength-training exercise you’ll need resistance—that means giving the muscles something to push or pull against. Weight machines in the gym are designed to work certain muscle groups. These can also be worked using free weights like dumbbells, resistance bands, or simply the weight of your own body. Many of the most well-known exercises—sit-ups, planks, lunges and squats—are body-weight moves. Lots of fitness classes count, too, from boxing-inspired exercises where your buddy’s pads offer resistance to your punch, to aqua aerobics, where water creates a resistance. And any everyday activity where you lift, pull or push against things—vigorously cleaning your car and squatting down to scrub the wheels, or carrying children or pets—also counts, especially if you’re new to strength exercises.
How can I get the best results?
Aim to work your legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms—either in one full-body session, or by doing a variety of activities through the week. Chances are, however or wherever you work out, you can find a strength-training plan to suit you. “This is the main thing that matters,” says Dr Lavin. “It’s about doing strength exercises regularly, and that’s easier if you choose activities you like and a routine you can maintain. While it’s not possible to target which parts of your body you lose weight from, it is possible to target specific muscle groups with strengthening exercises.” So if there’s a particular area where you’d like to improve your muscle tone—or if everyday strength activities aren’t feeling enough of a challenge—you could include some extra exercises especially for that. “To challenge your muscles, aim to work out with a resistance that means you can only do 8-12 repetitions of an exercise or activity without having to take a rest,” explains Dr Lavin. If you’re just beginning your strength-training program, a couple of filled water bottles might be enough. Then later, you might want to move up to heavier weights. The good thing about strength training is you take it at your own pace, and it’s easy to increase the resistance as you get fitter to keep those gains going strong.
If you’re still feeling a bit nervous about exercise, strength training could help with that, too. Feeling stronger and seeing your body shape become more defined can actually help strengthen your self-confidence. And it’s not just about body confidence. The more you progress, the more you’ll feel you can do, and that sense of achievement tends to spill over into all aspects of daily life. More strength to you!
If you’re planning to start a new exercise program, it’s always a good idea to check with your health care provider first—especially if you have an existing health condition, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or asthma.