Do you want to have greater endurance, stronger muscles and bones, better balance and flexibility, and a trim, toned body? Are you interested in controlling your blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol and lowering your risk of age-related diseases? How about reducing stress, depression, and anxiety and improving your sense of well-being?
Then get moving! A consistent, well-rounded exercise regimen can provide all these benefits and more. Yet only 20% of women get the minimum amount of exercise recommended for good health. Even worse, that percentage decreases with age—just when it is needed the most.
As women move through their 40s, 50s, and beyond and lose the protective effects of estrogen and progesterone, bone density and muscle mass decrease while weight gain and abdominal fat storage increase. Menopause also ushers in a heightened risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases.
You can’t turn back the clock, but you can adopt or fine tune an exercise program that can help prevent or control all these health challenges. If you are ready to commit—or recommit—to exercise, congratulations! You are taking a giant step on your journey to better health.
Strength Training Exercise for Women
Strength training isn’t an option for women—it’s a necessity! Lean muscle mass begins to decline in your 30s. If you don’t exercise regularly, your muscle mass and strength will diminish at an alarming rate. Strength training also improves bone density, making it especially important after menopause, when bone loss speeds up.
As an added benefit, research shows that strength training boosts your metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn at rest) for up to 72 hours—a whopping three days! Getting in two sessions per week can keep you burning extra calories all week long.
Pumping iron and weight machines are great for strength training, but you don’t have to join a gym or health club to increase your muscle mass and strength:
- Body weight: Squats, lunges, pushups, planks, sit ups, and other resistance exercises that use your own body weight are very effective and can be done anywhere.
- Hand weights and resistance bands: You can do all kinds of strengthening exercises with these small and relatively inexpensive exercise aids.
- Group fitness classes: If you think group classes are only about stretching and dancing, think again. Power yoga, Zumba, Barre, etc., can provide an intense, full body strengthening and cardio workout.
Whatever activity you select, the key to building lean muscle mass is to work out to the point of muscle fatigue. This can be achieved by doing multiple repetitions with a relatively light weight or by using a heavier weight and fewer reps. The goal is to work until you feel like you couldn’t possibly do another repetition. If it takes a lot of reps to get to this place, try upping your weight and see how you feel.
Note: If strength training is new to you, consider a few sessions with a personal trainer. Learning proper form and technique helps prevent injuries and improves results.
Exercise for Cardiovascular and Overall Fitness
Walking, running, jumping rope, cycling, swimming, and classes and sports that keep you moving and speed up your heart and respiratory rates are examples of cardio or aerobic exercise. Cardio is known for its heart benefits, but because it improves blood flow and oxygen delivery throughout your body, it enhances every aspect of your health. It may even increase your longevity!
The recommendation is for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, but if you are relatively sedentary, just getting started is an important first step. Walking is a great activity that is easy to fit into your daily routine. Take a break and go outside for a brisk walk. Opt for the stairs rather than the elevator. Walk or bike rather than drive whenever possible. Take a short walk after meals or reach out to a friend or neighbor for regular walks and talks.
When you are ready to expand your exercise options, choose a new activity or one that you have enjoyed in the past. I personally don’t like doing cardio at the gym. Sure, I’ve tried reading or listening to a podcast while on an exercise bike or elliptical, but I prefer a fast-paced class or another activity that pushes my limits and provides an engaging variety. I especially like exercising outside and breathing in the fresh air.
If exercise is fun and doesn’t feel like work, you will be motivated to do it for the sheer joy it brings!
Note: If you haven’t exercised in some time or have any chronic diseases, it’s a good idea to get medical clearance from your doctor. Then start slow and work up to your goals.
HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training Exercises for Women
When I go to the gym, I usually have a limited amount of time, so I want to make it count. I want to shorten my exercise sessions, so I have time to enjoy the steam room or sauna. That’s why I often do a self-paced high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout—it can provide the same, if not better, results as regular aerobic exercise in less time!
Another benefit of HIIT is that it targets and reduces visceral fat around our organs—not a place we want to store fat. Excess visceral fat is linked with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
HIIT workouts involve short periods of maximum intensity exercise alternated with recovery periods:
- Max exercise. Your max intensity phase should be as long as you can go all out. At the end of that push, you’ll likely experience a burn in your muscles and lungs and feel like you can’t go any longer. You can use a treadmill, bike, or rowing machine (although if you aren’t a runner or have had knee issues, I’d recommend the latter two options). You can also alternate between aerobic exercises (burpees, squat jumps, jumping jacks, etc.) and/or resistance exercises (free weights or lunges, squats, pushups, etc.) for a full-body workout at home.
- Recovery phase. This should be just long enough so you are physically ready to do another burst of max intensity—but not so long that you lose your aerobic momentum. Interval times will depend on your fitness level and the type of exercise you are doing.
- Warm up/cool down: It is important to do a two to three minute warm up and cool down sandwiching your HIIT workout, with gentle stretching afterwards.
What HIIT looks like for me is biking or running for 30 seconds with a 90-second recovery phase, repeated five to eight times. If I am using weights, I will typically do a 40 second push with a 40 second recovery. With HIIT, I can get a really great all-out workout in less than 15 minutes.
Note: It is important to avoid HIIT workouts every day—two to three times per week, interspersed with other types of exercise, is a good goal. HIIT may not be for everyone. If you have adrenal dysfunction or elevated cortisol, HIIT can further increase cortisol levels, especially if you aren’t taking days off or balancing it with TLC practices to combat stress (adequate sleep, mind-body practices, healthy dietary choices, and supplemental support when indicated).
Stretching: Flexibility and Restorative Mind-Body Benefits
Not all exercise needs to leave you panting and your heart racing. There is tremendous value in incorporating stretching and other slow, relaxing, restorative movements into your routine.
Stretching helps elongate your muscles and increases your flexibility and range of motion. Taking the time to warm up before exercising with a few minutes of dynamic stretching movements, such as arm circles and high knees marching in place, reduces the likelihood of injuries.
Gentle static stretching after vigorous exercise is also important. For additional benefits, a foam roller, massage gun, or fascia-blasting tool helps break up tight fascia, encourages lymphatic drainage, and removes lactic acid for reduced post-exercise muscle soreness.
Slow, restorative exercises also support your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heartbeat and breathing and helps your body relax. This is especially beneficial when you’re under a lot of stress, as these activities help lower your cortisol levels and nurture your adrenal glands.
Activities like yoga and tai chi that encourage deep, regulated breathing combined with gentle movements and stretches provide excellent mental and emotional benefits. They also engage and strengthen the muscles that support balance. Research reveals that yoga and tai chi improve bone mineral density as well.
Note: Community centers, health clubs, and studios offer yoga, tai chi, and other exercise classes. Video classes are also available online.
Improve Your Balance with Targeted Exercises
Balance worsens with age. If you don’t believe me, try this quick balance test with friends or family members of various ages. Take turns standing on one leg—shoes off and hands on hips—while someone times how long you can stand before losing your balance. Do it first with eyes open and then with eyes closed. You will find that the older you are, the faster you lose your balance, especially with your eyes closed.
Poor balance can cause big problems as we get older because it increases the risk of falls and fractures, which are especially common in older women. That’s why it is important to include exercises that help improve your balance.
Any activity that strengthens your legs and core can help with balance. Yoga and tai chi, as noted above, include postures and positions that specifically focus on balance. Exercises you can do at home include standing on one foot, heel-to-toe walking (like a sobriety test), walking lunges, heel raises (standing on your toes, especially while holding weights), and using upper body weights or bands while standing on a Bosu or other balance ball.
Note: If your balance is impaired, do not attempt these exercises on your own. Work with a doctor, physical therapist, or personal trainer first.
Exercises to Strengthen Your Core and Pelvic Floor Muscles
Core muscles include the abdominals, diaphragm (the breathing muscle), and the muscles that support the back, spine, pelvis, and organs in the pelvic region. Because these muscles stabilize your body and ensure mobility of your spine and trunk, good core strength improves posture, enhances balance, and helps prevent injuries.
The core muscles at the base of the pelvis, called the pelvic floor muscles, form a sling of sorts that supports and protects the bladder, uterus, vagina, bowel, and other organs in the lower abdomen. Weakened, damaged muscles can lead to pelvic floor disorders, such as urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse.
Because pregnancy, vaginal childbirth, and menopause can weaken and/or injure these muscles, these problems are particularly problematic for women. Nearly 25% of women of all ages and twice that many in the 80+ age group have some type of pelvic floor disorder.
Keeping your core muscles strong should be a priority for everyone. Sit ups, crunches, planks, leg raises, bridges, and Pilates are classic core strengthening exercises, but many of the other workouts we have discussed also help tone these muscles. Kegels and other exercises for women to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles are recommended as well. Making use of tools like Kegel balls can help ensure you're doing them properly.
Note: Incontinence and other pelvic floor disorders can seriously impact your quality of life. Talk to your doctor about treatments, which may include retraining and strengthening these muscles.
Dr. Robert Butler, founder of the National Institute on Aging, said, “If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”
This is no exaggeration. The benefits of exercise for women cannot be overstated. A comprehensive program, incorporating the modalities we have discussed, will improve your strength, balance, endurance, flexibility, energy, sense of well-being and reduce your risk of many age-related diseases.
If you aren’t exercising and are struggling to get started—or if your current activities aren’t working for you—don’t despair. You don’t have to do it alone. Enlisting a buddy to join you, getting a trainer or coach, or signing up for a class or other organized activity increases your accountability and your chance of reaching your goals.
Whatever it takes, let’s get moving!