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Strength Training: Good for Muscles, Great for Bones

Lift your way to Stronger Bones
  -- By Daphne Stevens, Ph.D., Life Coach

My doctor frowned last spring as he studied the test results. "You have a little bone thinning," he said. "It's time for you to start some resistance training."

The news didn't surprise me. My grandmother was stooped by the time she was in her fifties. My mother suffers from compression fractures in her back. She always enjoyed being out in the world, and it hurts me to see her housebound now. I definitely have the pedigree for "thinning," as my doctor euphemistically put it.

Yet I defied his advice. "Resistance training? I get resistance from my children, my husband, and now from my parents. How much resistance does one person need before they develop strong bones?" I make lame attempts at humor when my feet are in the stirrups. Besides, I've always exercised regularly. I've jumped around like a spastic marionette, flinging my limbs about and wheezing asthmatically in aerobics classes for the past twenty-five years.

I reconsidered the doctor's advice when, recovering from surgery, I realized how limited I was in upper body strength. And witnessing my mother's anguish - the pain it causes her to get up out of a chair - has left me helpless, wanting both to improve my own health, and to do something in honor of her suffering. Intercession for me often takes the form of exercise - I walk two miles on behalf of a grieving friend, and I swim laps the way other people say Hail Marys. I decided weight training wasn't a bad idea.

Two mornings a week now I meet at the gym with a personal trainer. She challenges me to do things with weight machines and dumbbells that I didn’t think were possible. Miriam is a cheerleader in this bone-building project. "Okay, let me show you the form," she says, jumping easily onto a contraption designed by war criminals. "Let's go for fifteen reps." She leaps off the machine and looks expectantly at me. I hesitate for a half a second. After all, I'm paying this woman to get me in shape. She should know (…shouldn't she?) what is too much and what is just enough? I enjoy the luxury of putting my busy mind on hold and doing what I am told.

I've surprised myself, these past few months. I'm up at dawn, ready to go. Undiscovered muscle groups are announcing their presence. They sing, "We're here!" during the workout and in the pleasant soreness that comes the day after.

Miriam uses a word that I like. Sometimes when I'm on the last repetition of the last set, a muscle begins to involuntarily tremble. "That's great," she says. "You're working to the point of failure."

In weight training, failure is a good thing. Failure means you've worked so hard that your body is saying, "Enough already! I give!" It means you haven't lost control - you're not in danger of injuring yourself - but if you don't stop now, you might be overdoing it.

I like thinking of failure that way. I wonder how our lives might be different if we thought about impending collapses as signals that we're working to the point of failure - the place of needing rest and respite. What if we were to simply stop, pat ourselves on the back for doing our best, and take a break, instead of judging ourselves or pushing to the point of injury?

Resistance training is teaching me other things, too. It's impossible to think about your troubles when you're working a muscle at full capacity. And it's almost as impossible not to sail through the rest of the day when you're fueled by an endorphin high.

Strong bones, I hope, will be the reward for this discipline. But meanwhile the sense of intercessory exercise suffices very well. I pray for the women who have gone before me whose fragile bones were taxed beyond limit by backbreaking work. I pray for those who don't have the strength to move for the sheer joy of moving. And I pray in response to the sense of gratitude that pulses through my body.