Building muscle guarantees health and fitness pay-off

Pumping iron. Does that conjure up the image of an Arnold Schwartzenegger-like hulk with bulging biceps and washerboard abs? True, intensive weight lifting can lead to body-builder bulk. But a regular, moderate program of strength training also promises real-world benefits to ordinary mortals, including couch potatoes and even frail older people.

Strength training is the process of building muscles by lifting free weights or working against resistance with machines such as Nautilus or Cybex. By slightly stressing various muscle groups and increasing the weights or repetitions over time, people can increase their muscle tissue.

After middle age, most people begin losing muscle mass--even those who do aerobic exercise and take part in sports. The consequences are all too familiar: decreased strength (particularly in the upper body) and middle-aged spread (because, pound-for-pound, fat takes up more space than the same amount of muscle).

The good news is that strength training can reverse that trend and provide benefits with a major pay-off for health and fitness. Consider the following:

*Weight loss--Building muscle increases the body's metabolic rate, so you actually burn more calories, whatever your normal activity level. Even people who don't lose pounds are likely to lose inches and see improved body tone.

*Reduced risk of osteoporosis--Strength training is an excellent weight-bearing exercise to help encourage new bone growth.

*Increased stamina--Stronger bodies mean better performance in sports, as well as more zest for other recreational activities and daily living tasks.

Strength training is so important that the American College of Sports Medicine revised its exercise guidelines in 1990 to include it as a key component, along with aerobic exercise, in a balanced fitness program.

Best of all, strength training is an exercise that anyone can do-at any age. A recent study encouraged frail men and women in their 80s and 90s to participate in a 10-week strength training program. The results, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1995, showed that the older people were able to increase their weight-lifting ability by 118 percent and their walking speed by 12 percent. Those gains translated into greater independence and activity for elderly people, according to an account of the study in

The New York Times

And racking up big gains in strength doesn't require lifting exceptionally heavy weights, according to another study. Women aged 65-70 who followed a relatively low-intensity weight training program showed improvement almost equal to a similar group who exercised with heavier weights.

With such an array of benefits available to people at any age and at any level of fitness, why isn't everyone jumping on the latest fitness bandwagon? Many fitness professionals say that novices find the aura of a gym's weight room daunting: the machines are intimidating and the regulars are alarmingly fit and confident. But there are definitely ways to overcome this barrier. A trainer can help a newcomer maneuver the maze of machines and free weights and show how to develop a safe strength-training program. Many fitness clubs and YMCAs offer weight training classes. Or, there's the do-it-yourself approach, using a book and set of free weights in graduated sizes to practice in the privacy of your home.

The main thing is to start with light weights, increase the intensity gradually, and allow at least a day between workouts to give your muscles time to recover. Setting aside at least 30 minutes for a strength-training session three times a week can yield definite results in a matter of weeks. Experts agree that, although there's no way to achieve fitness overnight, strength training may offer the fastest way to visible results.

Katie Baer is a free-lance writer specializing in health and medicine. She also teaches a writing course at the Rollins School of Public Health.

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