Why women should lift weights

Augustana physical education professor Jane Yardley shares how weightlifting can be especially beneficial to the ongoing health of women.

Jane Yardley - 27 January 2022

An image of a woman weightlifting.

The global pandemic has led to a renewed interest in health and exercise. People have turned to various exercise programs within their homes, including lifting weights. Women are often reluctant to incorporate weightlifting into their exercise routines, which is unfortunate because lifting weights has many benefits for men and women alike. 

Historically, weightlifting (also known as resistance training) was seen as a pastime for elite athletes trying to improve their sport performance. However, research throughout the 1980s and 1990s gradually started showing the many benefits of resistance exercise for the general population. Lifting weights is good for the heart, blood vessels, brain and immune system, in addition to providing strength and stability in the bones, muscles and joints. Yet, the gender divide is often visible in any gym, where many women are still hesitant to lift weights.

Over the years, I have received similar responses when asking women why they won’t lift weights: “I don’t want to get big”. This concern is unfounded. For most people, it takes a lot of effort, combined with the right diet and a specific type of training program for muscle mass gains to make a change in size perceptible. Rather, a well-designed program will improve most aspects of health and well-being, while also increasing aesthetic appeal by tightening and toning the body. With so many benefits, why put the emphasis on women?

The answer is twofold: muscle mass and bone density. Low muscle mass increases the risk of frailty. Frailty decreases quality of life, makes individuals more susceptible to illness and death, and increases the risk of needing long-term care at a younger age. It is estimated that one in four Canadians over the age of 65 can be classified as frail, with frailty being roughly 50% more common among women than among men. On average, women have lower muscle mass than men, and its loss with age decreases the ability to live independently as activities of daily living become difficult. Resistance exercise at any age decreases the rate of muscle loss with aging.

Where bone density is concerned, women lose bone density faster than men, especially once they pass menopause. As a result, women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. As bone density decreases, the risk of bone fractures from any type of impact increases. What may seem initially like an innocuous fall (the risk of which is increased by lower strength and muscle mass) can become life-altering. Lifting weights helps build bone density in the early years (up until around age 30) and decreases the rate at which it is lost thereafter. Therefore, due to their increased risk of low muscle mass and bone density, women stand to gain greater long-term benefits than men with this type of training.

The greatest benefits of lifting weights are obtained by starting early and continuing throughout life, but studies of older adults show that regular resistance training can still increase strength, stamina, and functional mobility. Even a handful of small weights and resistance bands used at home can be enough, and a few sessions with a personal trainer can start you out on this journey to improve your future health, mobility and independence. So, women, it’s never too late to start. Whether you are staying home for your exercise or headed back to the gym (eventually), get lifting—your body is worth it!

Jane Yardley, Physical Education, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on January 11, 2022.