Hate running? Good news! Science says it's not the best way to stop the sly creep of middle-aged spread in its tracks, after all. Researchers at Harvard University have discovered that people who do 20 minutes of weight training each day put on less belly fat as they age than those who spend the time engaging in aerobic exercise. Why? People tend to lose muscle mass as they age, but a targeted weight training programme can halt, and even counteract, this decline. "Boosting your muscle mass speeds up your metabolic rate, so you burn more calories - even when you're not exercising," explains Rania Mekary, a visiting assistant professor of surgery at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
But the benefits don't stop there. Read on to find out why you should be investing in a pair of dumbbells quick smart, and how to build muscle (without bulking up).
Other benefits of weight training
1. It's anti-ageing
"I would describe strength training as the fountain of youth," declares fitness instructor Amy Dixon, who created the Pure Strength group weight training workout for Equinox gyms. "If you weight train and have strong, healthy muscles, you will have less fatty tissue between the skin and the muscle - this keeps your skin looking young and healthy."
2. It strengthens bones
Weight-bearing exercise increases bone density and guards against the development of osteoporosis.
3. It improves posture and mobility
"Strength training keeps your back healthy and ensures the body moves in all directions it needs to stay mobile and injury free," says Amy. It can even help with arthritis.
4. It decreases your risk of diabetes
Weight training improves insulin control, and can reduce your risk of diabetes by up to two-thirds when combined with aerobic activity. It also improves diabetic symptoms for many sufferers.
5. It reduces your risk of heart attack and stroke
Regular resistance training lowers blood pressure, decreasing your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Guided, moderate weight training has "significant benefits" for heart disease patients, according to Mark Williams of Creighton University School of Medicine, who says it enhances the benefits of aerobic fitness and provides the added benefit of "increased functional capacity and independence".
You should, however, seek medical advice and professional guidance before embarking on a weight training programme, as resistance training temporarily increases strain on the heart.
6. It improves mental health
In one study, people who embarked on a programme of twice weekly resistance training reported a 60% decrease in anxiety after 6 weeks, coupled with reductions in irritability. Moderate (rather than intense) training was associated with the best results. In another study, strength training decreased the symptoms of sleeplessness in people suffering from depression by 30%.
How to get started
New to resistance training? Read on for our beginner's guide to weight training for women, and learn how to build muscle...
At the gym...
Consider booking a session with a personal trainer. They will be able to assess which exercises best suit your goals and needs, monitor your form, heart rate and technique, offer personalised guidance and draw up a customised programme.
Virgin Active offers a Get to Grips with Weight Training class, which promises to build confidence whilst teaching you proper technique and form. Plus, they're suggested to help you burn around 400 calories per session!
Fitness First offers 30 minute Freestyle group strength training classes. You'll use the bozu, dumbbells and TRX, as well as bodyweight exercises. Non-member? Your first class is free...
If weights are too daunting, Speedflex might be more your speed. "If you usually hate exercise, we think Speedflex offers a way for you to get fitter and healthier that's tolerable - enjoyable even," they promise. You'll train in a small group, supervised by a qualified trainer, using hi-tech anti-gravity resistance machines, rather than dumbbells and kettlebells. It's a high intensity, low impact workout suitable for all ages and fitness levels, and is said to be particularly good at perking up legs and bums.
Too busy, strapped or shy to brave a gym or class just yet? Never fear - you can create your own body building workout at home, allowing you to build muscle (not bulk, don't panic!) with minimal financial outlay, very little hassle and, best of all, zero lycra anxiety.
Harvard has produced a guide to Strength and Power Training for older adults, complete with easy-to-follow workouts, available to download from their website.
Davina McCall's 5 Week Fit DVD provides a complete strength and cardio training programme for beginners.
For variety, you can't beat the BeFit YouTube channel. If you don't fancy weights, try their free resistance band-based workouts for the upper and lower body.
Alternatively, try an app such as Sworkit, available on iPhone, iPad, Android and the web. It provides customisable strength training workouts, including low impact exercises for beginners and older adults, and Ask-a-Trainer support.
MIRAFIT 10kg Mini Dumbbell Set
Start light and build up over time.
To begin with, it's best to focus on form rather than weight. Master each exercise with no weight, or a very light weight. Once you can perform an exercise with perfect form, you should be able to complete 8-12 repetitions using your chosen weight. The last 2 repetitions should provide a real challenge to the muscles you are targeting. If they don't, increase the weight. If it's too hard to complete them with good form, decrease the weight. You may well need to use a different weight, or level of resistance, for different exercises.
Pro Fitness Dumbell Tree Set (15.8kg)
Davina Stretch Resistance Bands
Resistance bands give your muscles a different form of resistance to work against. They'll work different muscles in your body, and give you a fantastic work out.
1. If you are new to exercise, or suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, heart or joint problems, consult your doctor before beginning a strength training programme.
2. Always warm up by spending a few minutes moving your muscles without weights (a few star jumps and a bit of jogging on the spot followed by a set of unweighted squats should do the trick) and remember to stretch afterwards.
3. Focus on slow, smooth lifts and controlled descents.
4. Exhale as you lift, push or pull, working against the resistance; inhale as you return to your starting position.
5. Pay equal attention to all major muscle groups - legs, hips, back, abs, chest, shoulders and arms. You may prefer to focus on a different area each time (e.g. upper or lower body), but try to ensure you hit each area twice a week.
6. Take 48 hours off between sessions. You build muscle while you rest, not while you work out, although you might like to run or take a dance or yoga class on your day off.
7. As your routine becomes easier, step up the resistance!