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Yes, You Can Turn Back the Clock!
Ask Bernice for help, and she says, "Sure." Twice a week she chases after two young boys to give their mom a break. When her church needs a volunteer--whether it's to knit baby hats or to scramble eggs for a hundred people--they call Bernice. But she also finds time for herself. A few years ago she started an exercise program developed at Tufts University. A skeptical friend asked, "What are you trying to prove?" and Bernice retorted, "I don't want to feel old!" She credits the exercises for her excellent bowling scores and for her "great bursts of energy." Once, she took down all the first-floor curtains and washed them. While they were tumbling in the dryer, she cleaned the windows.
By the way, the boys are Bernice's great-grandchildren. Her bowling partners are in their seventies and eighties. Bernice herself is ninety-three--but definitely not old.
Maida Lois used to stop her mother, also named Maida, when she started to lift something heavy. "Let me carry that for you," she'd say. "After all, I'm younger." The older Maida had never been physically active--until a few years ago, when she volunteered to be in an exercise study. At the end of the study, the two Maidas took a series of tests to compare their strength. At the time, the older Maida was sixty-six. Maida Lois was thirty-nine, and she trained for road races by running five miles five days a week. Maida Lois didn't hold back during the tests. "I got competitive," she admits; "I tried hard."
It didn't help. Maida outscored her daughter by 12 to 18 percent on three of the four strength tests and was only 8 percent behind on the fourth. After that, Maida did her own lifting. "After all," she'd tell Maida Lois, "I'm stronger."
Even in high school, Evelyn wore a size 16. At age thirty, she had her first child, and her weight climbed to over 200 pounds. Soon afterward, she came to work at Tufts University. "I became interested in nutrition, I started doing aerobics, and I got down to 160 pounds. I was thinner, but I was complete flab," she recalls. What's more, her weight loss had reached a plateau. Inspired by her colleagues' research--and the success stories all around her--Evelyn started an exercise program. "It toned my body and speeded up my metabolism. I took off the last thirty pounds."
Now thirty-eight and the mother of two, Evelyn recently attended her twentieth high school reunion. She describes a thrilling evening: "Some of my best girlfriends never got back in shape after having kids--and there I was in a slinky black evening dress, size 6. I got compliments from men who never spoke to me in high school."
As one of the scientists who developed these remarkably successful exercise programs, I'm very proud of Bernice, Maida, and Evelyn. They were willing to try something that was not only challenging but unusual for women: high-intensity strength training. Our studies have proven that the benefits they gained were not unique. If you're a woman age thirty-five or older, you should know what strength training can do for you.
Let me tell you about my part in this research. For my study, I recruited forty postmenopausal women. All were healthy but sedentary; none was taking hormones. Half the volunteers--our control group--were simply asked to maintain their usual lifestyle for the next year. Their before-and-after measurements would show us what physical changes a woman can expect after a year just because she's that much older. The others--including Maida--came twice a week to our laboratory and lifted weights.
Most women begin to lose bone and muscle mass at about age forty; in part because of this, they start to slow down. And that's exactly what happened to the women who didn't exercise. One sedentary year later, their muscles and bones had aged and they were even less active than before.
The women who lifted weights changed too--but in the opposite direction. After one year of strength training, their bodies were fifteen to twenty years more youthful.
Instead of losing bone density, they actually showed small but significant gains. Their scores on strength tests soared to levels more typical of women in their late thirties or early forties. All the participants had agreed not to gain or lose weight, because that might have confused our results. But those in the strength-training group traded fat for muscle. So they looked trimmer--and some even dropped a dress size or two.
As these physical changes unfolded, we saw emotional changes too. The women felt happier, more energetic, more self-confident. Self-imposed stereotypes shattered, and their lives began to change.
One surprise was that our volunteers became much more active as they got stronger. We had specifically asked them not to join any fitness programs during the year--a routine precaution to make sure other factors weren't responsible for the changes we were measuring. But on their twice-weekly visits, they described other ventures:
* Sheila, fifty-eight, announced, "I went Rollerblading with my husband last weekend!"
* Nancy, fifty-three, reported: "My husband and I took our first canoe trip in years. We'd stopped because I couldn't help him get the canoe on the car--and now I can."
* Flora, sixty-six, who previously brushed off a friend's invitations to go ballroom dancing, finally tried it. She had such a good time, she started dancing several evenings a week.
* Verna, sixty-eight, moved four tons of topsoil that a dump truck deposited in her driveway. The pile was taller than Verna, wider than a car. As incredulous neighbors watched, she tackled the dirt with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. "I worked three hours a day, then four," Verna told us. "I never had any aches or pains." A week later, the driveway was clear and the topsoil was in the garden.
At the end of the year, the women who strength-trained not only felt younger but were leading more youthful lives. What's more, the changes have continued. Since she completed her year with us, Maida--once sedentary--has developed a whole new lifestyle. She works out at a gym three or four times a week. In the winter, she ice skates; in the summer, she switches to in-line skates or rides her six-speed bike--a birthday gift from her three children. And year-round there's line dancing two nights a week. She says: "I'm in better health now than I've ever been in my whole life. I have more confidence in attempting physical things. I never think about age."