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November 1998 Issue
The Benefits of Weightlifting for Couch Potatoes - One Mashed Couch Potato's Experience With Lifting Weights
by Michael Fick
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We've all heard these exercise facts:
  • Everyone benefits from exercise (and the worse shape we're in, the faster exercise improves us).
  • Exercise takes time (but pays it back with interest).
  • Eating fewer calories than we burn makes us lose weight (but exercise counts more than diet in weight control).
  • Aerobic exercise burns calories while we exercise (but muscle burns calories 24 hours a day).
  • The quickest way to build muscle is lifting weights (and ordinary weight lifting makes women look trim, not beefy).
But if the facts haven't gotten you off the couch, much less lifting weights, and if your fanny still looks like a reverse image of your favorite couch, maybe some anecdotal motivation will help. I interviewed an obliging 53-year-old woman about what weight lifting has done for her. She enjoyed sports decades ago, but blimped to 240 pounds -- twice her fighting weight -- when she quit them. Dieting wasn't shedding her weight for long (guess what: dieting makes us hungry), and nothing else helped until she took a night course in weight lifting for women. She is so excited by her results that she shared some quite personal insights in the hope of encouraging others to try weight lifting. Here's why she's so enthused about it.

Lifting weights has distinctly improved her physical capabilities. Her luggage seems much lighter (lots of travel in her job). Heavy doors spring open to her more powerful hands and shoulders. Her overstressed knees are much less painful and now support work and play much better; she recently hiked miles through a swift river in Zion National Park -- a challenge she once abandoned and which turned back several young men. Her waist is down two sizes, and her bra straps no longer slide off her previously slumped shoulders. She can again wear the 2" heels that leg and ankle fatigue prevented six months ago, and the three flights of stairs to her office are now a piece of cake. The fat hump that had formed behind her neck has diminished, allowing her coat hemlines to hang more level again. She sleeps better, and has more energy all day even when short on sleep. Her usual constipation is gone. She can once again feel muscle under her fat, and it takes much more activity now to get her out of breath.

Lifting weights has boosted her self confidence. Getting in the class with peers and in the gym with hard-bodied athletes half her age required checking her insecurities at the front door. She quickly realized that the size (and age) of her body doesn't matter nearly as much as what she does with it. Her quick surge in physical strength validated and improved her increased psychological confidence. She quickly became more willing and able to do things she once abandoned, such as rugged hiking and sailing. She feels sexier. She's standing straighter now as both cause and effect of improved self confidence, so her clothes hang better on her and she's breathing more easily. Making and meeting specific, measurable goals every day in the gym, without external scrutiny, have really pumped up her confidence and commitment. Even her occasional failure to achieve her target reps or weight helps by improving her goal-setting accuracy. Besides, she says, "No one else knows what my targets were or when I failed."

Stress reduction came quickly, from several sources. From the cathartic iron-pumping process which mellows her out after a hard day at the alligator ranch. From the increased self-confidence. From her improved balance (see how good your balance is when you are carrying someone your size on your weak shoulders supported by a weak body). From the intense concentration (setting up the weights and the machines, using them properly, and tracking her progress send the alligators scurrying). From better sleep and greater resilience. And from increased self respect at having resumed control of her life after decades of neglect.

Has she become one of those people who obsessively hang out at gyms, that most of us scorn or secretly envy? No, she resents the time, hassle, and obligation of going to the gym (she's an overworked executive) and cringes at the thought of a strenuous workout. It all pays off, and becomes almost fun, only when the iron, adrenaline, blood, and sweat start moving and the alligators recede. It continues to pay off when she charges into the office the next morning, energized to go toe-to-toe with her peers -- a bunch of over-achieving males. She likes chatting about weight lifting with the four serious weight lifters in her office, and sees increased respect from them. Lifting is distinctly a means, not an end objective, for her. It's her path to increased physical and mental health, greater productivity, and resumption of some of the sports she once enjoyed. She will get into far better physical condition long before losing the excess 120 pounds. In fact, she began feeling much better before losing any weight. Thus she found short-term, measurable gains -- heavier weights and more reps -- to be more effective carrots than weight loss.

She credits her switch from couch potato to weight lifter to one event: that course in weight lifting for women. She studied the benefits, principles, and process of pumping iron, then got down'n'sweaty, all on the first evening of the course. Formal instruction got her past the trepidation of "all those big, complex machines and heavy steel", group momentum carried her past self consciousness, and quick results kept her motivated (she was extremely out of shape, so her strength increased rapidly).

She mentioned that a gym is not a social scene -- not a singles bar, not a bull session, not a meat market. Most people are there to exercise and get on with their lives. She observes distinctly different groups at the gym at different times of the day, so she initially picked the gym and the crowd she felt most comfortable with. Soon, though, she just tuned out the environment, and she now feels comfortable working out when and where her business travel takes her.

How will she "get back", or at least justify, the time she devotes to exercise? In the short term: Through sounder sleep. Through greater energy and deeper reserves which enable her to do more and cope better. Through a brisker pace, quicker yard work, and decreased need for rests. Through greater capacity for both work and play, and greater discipline to use more of that increased capacity. Expected long term payback: Through longer life. Through greater vitality that leaves exercisers wanting longer lives. Generally: Through the literal and figurative removal of that couch from her butt.

At the end our interview, I deliberately asked her a dumb question: "How did you make the time to lift weights?" Her answer: "I didn't make time; my 24 hours per day were given to me. It's about priorities, not time, and the weight lifting class and benefits moved me to put my priorities in perspective. From there it was simple to commit two hours, three times a week to the next 40 years of my life ... fewer hours if I want to reduce the workouts once I get my shape in the shape I choose. After all, I won't have those 40 years if I don't get my act together." Now she's determined to devote equal time to aerobic exercise, the only way to develop our most vital muscle -- the heart.

Here is the most surprising part of her story: she has already experienced these benefits even though she took that course just last June. She hasn't even lost much weight yet; that takes time and she's building muscle as rapidly as she's losing fat. Her increasing muscles and metabolism will soon start melting away fat as fuel, and her weight and size will drop. Guaranteed.

And we don't get many guarantees in life.



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