Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Walking with Weights

A physical therapy patient had a question for me:  Which of these exercises is better for building strength, the treadmill or the bicycle or swimming?

Let’s talk about what strength means to you, I said, because all those exercises are great for strengthening your heart and lungs and building endurance in your legs (while swimming also builds endurance in the trunk and arms).  So what do you mean by strength?

Here is a woman who owned a greenhouse and nursery business, who was used to performing a lot of heavy lifting.  Since retiring, she has lost a lot of her lifting ability.  So building muscle strength, as opposed to muscle endurance, would restore her ability to lift heavy stuff, and that’s what she wants. 

Certainly, even as a retiree, it’s not too late for her to do that.

Move it or lose it, that’s what happens with muscle endurance and muscle strength.  But it matters a great deal what movements you choose in order to help you reach the goals of increasing endurance or strength.  Rather than getting into the technical biochemical aspects of which energy systems your body uses to generate endurance or strength activity, let me sum it up this way:  Keep moving for 10, 15, 20 minutes or more and you are building endurance, and; keep moving to a point of failure at a minute or less and you are building strength.

Over-simplified but true.  And interestingly, I recall from a continuing education seminar I attended 18 years ago that researchers have determined you can build some muscular endurance by following a strength conditioning program… but the reverse does not occur.  Especially as you age.  So the older you grow, the more crucial it is to pursue strength as a fitness goal.

Which brings me to walking with weights.  While I was jogging a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I passed a man walking briskly with  dumbbells in his hands.  Judging from the size of the weights I’d say they were at least six pounds each.  If he was planning to complete, as appeared likely, the entire two-plus mile loop of the neighborhood, he’d have spent at least 30 to 40 minutes pumping those arms along as he walked.

So based on my overly-simple guidelines, he was building muscle endurance in his legs and arms, and placing a greater burden on his heart and lungs to increase his cardio-vascular effort — but with little muscle strength to be gained, and all this at a terrific bio-mechanical risk of injury to his shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands.

We’ve known about the injury risk associated with this practice for over 20 years, everyone.  Instead, limit yourself to a one or two pound weight in your hands.  To give your cardio-vascular system a little more challenge, use what I call “choo-choo“ arms, bent at the elbows with hands kept at waist height or higher.  This arm position can help you move your arms faster, which automatically causes your feet to speed up.  And it minimizes excessive wear and tear on the elbows and shoulders when you‘re walking fast or jogging.  Better yet, just leave the wrist and ankle and handheld weights at home when you’re out for a brisk walk or jog.

Please share your specific questions about strength exercises here on the blog, or email me directly.  Keep moving!

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