Ask Dr. Brent
Q: There are so many products touting "anti-aging" effects. Is there a more surefire approach?
A: You're right to question those claims. Aging starts the minute you're born, and your health and appearance at any given age reflect the cumulative effect of your lifestyle, including your diet and exercise habits, as well as your genes. One new study in "American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism" showed that resistance training, long known to help with bone density, may help slow the aging process. Women who did resistance exercises for 24 weeks produced more human growth hormone (a "longevity" hormone whose levels start dwindling after about age 30) than the control group. What's more, heavier weights were found to produce more growth hormone than lighter weights. If you don't do resistance training, start now. Try the simple routine below at home or at the gym. -- Brent Ridge, M.D., Vice President, Healthy Living for Martha Stewart Omnimedia.
What You Need
Set of 2- or 3-pound hand weights
The words "weight training" may evoke images of sweaty bodybuilders, but integrate those weights into a soulful home practice and they become the key component of a strengthening and satisfying morning routine.
On a holistic level, waking up with weights readies mind and spirit to engage with resistance in its many forms. "A dumbbell represents an opposing force and the potential for struggle," explains Tammy Wise, New York City-based creator of BodyLogos, a mind-body practice that combines strength training with meditation. "I call this the Tao of strength training: In working with weights, you learn to recognize and honor personal boundaries, rather than work against them." Plus, adds Mary Tedesco, owner of Body Fit Personal Training in Cross River, New York, "your mind tends to be sharper and more focused in the morning."
On a purely physical level, there are impressive health benefits of strength training, particularly for women. Lifting weights lowers the risk of conditions like osteoporosis, heart disease, depression, and Type 2 diabetes. It may even relieve arthritis and improve sleep quality -- not to mention help prevent age-related weight gain. "Starting in their late 30s or early 40s, women lose about a quarter pound of muscle a year, which slows metabolism and causes the body to gain equal amounts of fat," says Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston and author of Strong Women Stay Young. Regular strength training, she says, can keep this process in check and help prevent fat accumulation.
Of course, working with weights offers an immediate payoff, as well. "Brief sessions with light weights can be invigorating," says Tedesco. For maximum benefit, she suggests gradually increasing weight over time, depending on your comfort level (you can work your way up to as much as 7-pound weights). The following routine designed by Tedesco and Wise pairs muscle-group conditioning with active meditations -- making weight training to another level. This approach lets you "embrace resistance and bring stillness into your workouts," says Wise. And that allows you to start your day from a place of strength.
Strength training has proven benefits for apple-shaped women (those carrying their weight around the trunk) who want to decrease abdominal fat and lower their risk of heart disease. In a study presented at an American Heart Association meeting, overweight and obese women ages 24 to 44 completed twice-weekly, hour-long strength-training workouts for two years, gradually increasing weights. The program helped prevent an increase in abdominal fat -- and the women lost about 4 percent of overall body fat, compared to no improvements in a control group.
What it does: Stretches and strengthens the spine and abdominal muscles; improves posture.
How to do it: Start on hands and knees, with knees under your hips and wrists under your shoulders, fingers pointing forward. Keep your neck in line with your spine and contract your abdominal muscles to prevent your back from sagging. Holding a weight in your right hand, extend your right arm in front of your body, in line with your right shoulder, palm down. Lift your left leg off the floor to hip level. Inhale for 4 counts and bring your right elbow and left knee together until they touch. Exhale for 4 counts and return to extended position so your right arm and left leg are stretched out again. Repeat 16 times. Then switch sides and repeat.
Active meditation: "Your abdominals are your core -- your essential, spiritual self," says Wise. "Maintain integrity in the abs by keeping them strong and aligned. Focus on staying connected to your core, to yourself, as you reach out into the world. It's always a balancing act."
What it does: Works the large muscles of the glutes and quads; tones the deltoids.
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Pull your abdominal muscles inward; feel your tailbone drop down. Hold dumbbells in your hands with palms facing in toward your sides. Slowly lower yourself into a squat as if you're sitting on a chair, raising your arms out to shoulder height. Do three sets of 10 to 30 repetitions.
Active meditation: As the primary forward force of your body, the quadriceps move you to new destinations. "As you squat, focus on where you're going," says Wise. "Why are you working so hard to get strong?" As you do each squat, she says, feel yourself taking steps toward the future you wish for yourself.
What it does: Stretches and engages the core muscles and chest.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your feet off the ground and your legs bent in a 90-degree angle (or rest your feet on a chair). Holding a weight in each hand, start in a closed position above your chest with knuckles touching and arms slightly curved. Open arms smoothly and slowly out to the sides and then close. Exhale as you open your arms; inhale as you close. Repeat exercise 16 times.
Active meditation: Your chest muscles protect your heart, the seat of your emotions. "As you work your chest in this exercise," says Wise, "think about approaching the day with an open heart. Feel this intention expand into your life, letting your heart lead your actions."
What it does: Simultaneously engages major muscle groups in your upper and lower body; also increases your heart rate.
How to do it: Start in a lunge, your right foot 2 to 3 feet in front of your left. Holding a weight in each hand, tuck your elbows in by your sides with palms facing each other. Engage your core and inhale for 4 counts, and then exhale for 4 counts as you go deeper into the lunge, lowering your right thigh until it's parallel to the ground (your left knee should almost touch the floor); lift weights toward your shoulders. Return to starting position, inhaling as you come up, and repeat. Do 16 repetitions, and then switch sides.
Active meditation: The biceps allow your arms to pull "desirables" toward you. "Take this opportunity to consider what you really want," says Wise. "Imagine the dumbbells are what you long for most and focus on pulling them inward. Think of this exercise not just as sculpting your body but as helping to sculpt your life."
Text by Karen Asp