As she was nearing 60, Jacksonville resident Jane Schlacht knew she wanted to avoid the stereotypical symptoms of getting older, including loss of bone mass, strength and balance.
Having already had knee-replacement surgery four years before, surgery that wouldn’t heal properly, Schlacht, now 64, started a strength-training class.
While she set out in hopes of easing some pain and improving strength for her bad knee, she wound up doing far more.
Seeing improved overall strength in her body, plus a more successful second surgery credited to her increased activity level, and witnessing similar benefits for classmates, she began teaching a class of her own to spread the word about the benefits of strength training for women.
“I’d had the first knee replacement done and it didn’t go very well, but those exercises helped so much to build up the muscles around that knee,” she says.
“When I had the knee replaced again, boy it was a snap. We even had another lady in her 70s who fell and cracked her hip. The doctors told her it would have broken her hip had she not been in those classes and had the strength that she had.”
While bone loss is something most often considered by retirees as par for the course, studies have found bone density and muscle loss in women as young as 40 can be prevented or minimized with strength training.
According to a study by Tufts University and “Strong Women Stay Young” author Miriam Nelson, a group of women participating in the study added strength training to their health routine and, instead of losing bone density and muscle mass, were 15 to 20 years “younger” in terms of bone density after one year of weight training.
Medford YMCA fitness coordinator Jeni Beck says an increase in awareness about osteoporosis in recent years has sparked interest in strength-training classes.
“In the old days, it was cardio, cardio, cardio,” says Beck.
“Cardio is still great for overall conditioning … but the strength training increases your lean muscle mass and that has a long-term effect on your metabolism. Basically, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you’re burning,” Beck says.
Medford resident Carolyn Oates says the trade-off — two hours a week for feeling stronger and having more energy — has kept her in a class for a year and a half.
“I have built some stamina. My legs feel more solid on the ground and I don’t feel afraid of falling anymore,” Oates says.
“I feel like, especially for people who are at risk for osteoporosis like I am, that this is a really powerful and important thing to be doing.”
And the sooner the better.
“Studies have shown that it definitely helps prevent loss of bone density, which is why it’s so important to start at a young age and continue faithfully throughout life so you can maintain that bone density and not suffer from osteoporosis later,” Beck says.
While the notion of strength training might conjure visions of “hard bodies,” Oates says women’s strength training is not about flexing muscles.
“When you first go to do it, you don’t even use weights right away,” she says. “You just learn your form and take things slowly. It takes a few weeks to even use weights. I started with one pound, then two. We’re not trying to show off with how much we can lift. It’s not about that.”
While she didn’t sign on to “have huge muscles,” Central Point resident Carol Hale says she wanted to tackle another sign of old age that, while it has minimal impact on longevity, is a burden for many women.
“When you get older, when you lift your arm up to wave at somebody, you have that awful flap of skin,” she says. “And, you know, the class has really made a difference on that. When you want to wear a short-sleeve dress or summer dress, you don’t want that little flap hanging there.”
“The ladies in the classes are always saying they don’t wanna look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she says. “If you go at it hard and fast, you’ll get big, hard muscles, but we’re just in it to build some endurance and for our later years to be better years. Slow but steady.”