Muscle work.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

The bad news is that as people age - and that applies to people in their 30s as well as boomers in their 50s - muscle mass starts decreasing. If nothing is done to reverse the trend, it generally turns to fat.

The only way to keep this from happening is to remain physically active in a way that includes not only cardiovascular exercise - activities such as walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming and jumping rope that benefit the heart and lungs - but also strength training, which works the body's main groups of muscles.

Put as simply as possible, strength training means giving the muscles some kind of resistance, causing them to contract, and therefore to strengthen.

For many people, this prospect inevitably conjures up images of fitness rooms full of machines that at worst look as if they belong in a torture chamber and at best that the average person could never figure out how to operate.

But, no. Strength training can be achieved using a variety of "props" such as hand weights (even plastic bottles filled with sand or water), weight machines, stretchy resistance bands, even gravity and the body's own weight.

It can be done at home or in a gym or health club and through programs such as yoga or martial arts. For most people, it takes just two or three sessions per week of 20 to 30 minutes each to experience significant improvement in muscle tone and strength.

However, experts in the field, among them the staff at the Mayo Clinic, say the practice offers many other health benefits: stronger bones to fend off osteoporosis; weight control through more efficient burning of calories; stronger joints that reduce the risk of injury; greater stamina that lessens daily fatigue; better body image; less depression and insomnia; and improvements in conditions such as arthritis, back pain and diabetes.

Julie Hafemeister, fitness center coordinator at the Eugene Swim & Tennis Club, says the type and frequency of strength-training exercise depends on the person's goal.

"My first question when I talk to someone about strength training is, 'Do you want muscle toning - which is what most women are after - or do you want to build muscle?' " Hafemeister said. "Of course, there's also a weight-loss component ... because when you tone or build muscle, it helps change fat body mass to lean body mass."

At its most basic, strength training can be done with minimal or no equipment, incorporating many of the exercises many people remember from their high school P.E. classes: sit-ups (now modified and called crunches), leg squats, push-ups and pull-ups, runners' lunges. These engage the main muscle groups of the back, shoulders, chest, arms, abdomen, legs and buttocks.

Whatever the method, the main goal of strength training is to do just as many repetitions of each movement as needed to make your muscles feel tired enough that even one more seems impossible.

Some trainers recommend doing two or three sets of fewer repetitions, but many recommend aiming for one set of 12 repetitions for each exercise, building up to that number if necessary. If using weights, when 12 repetitions become easy, add some weight. If you are not using weights, build up the number of repetitions until the effort again is difficult.

Those who don't know much about the muscle groups and what exercises to use may want to visit a gym or health club, the local YMCA or one of many Internet sites that deal with strength training.

Most workout facilities charge a membership fee. Hafemeister said, "If you want a really basic facility where you work out on your own, the membership fee will probably be less. If you want a more comfortable environment with more personal attention, you will pay more."

Whether exercising at home or at a gym, each of the main muscle groups should be exercised during a weekly regimen of exercises, giving each muscle group a full day to recover before exercising it again, although Hafemeister says that also can be accomplished by doing upper body exercises one day and lower the next, to allow workouts every day. Each session should include exercises for opposing muscle groups - quads and hamstrings in the legs and biceps and triceps in the arms, for example - to reduce the risk of injury.

The Web site includes a section called "Weight Training 101" that recommends for beginners to do one or two exercises for each upper-body muscle group and three or four for the lower body muscles, expanding as muscle strength increases.

It suggests a variety of exercises that include machines, hand weights and no equipment.

To determine the right amount of weight to start with, the site recommends starting with a light weight and doing one set, then adding weight until the last repetition in the set is difficult to finish.

Before doing strength training, it's a good idea to warm up with a few minutes of walking or running in place followed by some simple stretches.

Afterward, a repeat of the warm-up routine helps the body cool down and begin muscle recovery.


The American College of Sports Medicine says you should if you answer "yes" to more than one of the following questions, or if you have been diagnosed with cardiovascular, pulmonary or metabolic disease:

Are you a man over 45 years old?

Are you a women over the age of 55? Or are you less than 55 years old and post-menopausal but not taking estrogen?

Has any male family member died of a heart attack before age 55 or any female family member before age 65?

Do you smoke cigarettes?

Has a doctor ever told you have high blood pressure - or you take medication for high blood pressure - or has your blood pressure been measured more than once at 140 over 90 or higher?

Has your doctor ever told you that you have high cholesterol? Is your total cholesterol is greater than 200 or your HDL cholesterol less than 35?

Are you physically inactive both at work and during your leisure time?

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