I’ve gotten most of my daily exercise this week splitting big chunks of cedar wood into kindling.
We had a couple of big cedars taken down and sawed up last year to let more winter light into our greenhouse, and the 16-inch logs were just sitting there, nice and dry and begging to be split.
Cedar doesn’t give much heat, but it makes great kindling. These particular logs made for great exercise, too, because the wood was so full of knots. After 10 minutes, I was huffing and puffing and got so hot I stripped off my jacket.
I can split wood for hours with the best of them. That’s because for nearly three decades, I’ve stayed faithful to regular weight training. It gives me the strength and coordination I need, not just for splitting wood, but for the multitudes of chores and fun activities that demand more than a little ooomph.
When most people think of exercise, they think of aerobic (“cardio”) activities such as running, walking, bicycling, swimming, jumping rope. These activities help build stamina, improve heart-lung function, and offer a lot of mental-health benefits.
But weight training ("lifting") offers a raft of special health and lifestyle benefits. To name a few:
- Preserves muscle mass for people trying to lose weight. Unless you protect muscles by demanding more of them, about half the weight you lose will be muscle.
- Protects against age-related loss of muscle. Most people lose muscle (and strength) as they age, simply because they don't demand as much from their muscles. To stay (or get strong), you have to ask you body to do the hard work.
- Boosts metabolism; muscles burn calories even at rest.
- Improves kinesthetic awareness (location of body in space, and body parts relative to one another). This result in better balance and more efficient, graceful movements.
- Protects joints. Bigger, stronger muscles take up more the stress of physical efforts, thus reducing stress on joints.
- Protects against injury. If your muscles (and the tendons that attach them to your bones) are stronger than ordinary life demands, you’ll be less likely to injure yourself when life suddenly requires more strength or faster reactions.
- Stresses, and therefore strengthens, bones. Like muscles, bones respond to increasing increments of stress by growing denser and stronger.
- Firms muscles, so you have less jiggle. You may end up wearing the same sized jeans and shirts, but you’ll have fewer bulges and look more svelte.
Knowing what to do and how to do it took a few grunt-and-groan lessons with dumbbells and barbells at a local gym. I feel fortunate to have learned from young male trainers who didn’t propagate the myth that women should do different weight training from men, since we all have the same muscles.
They showed me how to execute the basic moves, starting with small, easy-to-handle weights, then encouraging me to add more weight each time an exercise became easy.
Weight training doesn’t make new muscle cells, it just strengthens the muscles you already have. Through gradually adding small increments of weight, the practice encourages existing muscle cells to grow and strengthen, allowing them to handle loads beyond what the stresses of daily life ordinarily demand.
By the way, weight training also doesn’t “turn fat into muscle.” Fat cells shrink as you “lose weight.” Muscle cells grow bigger and stronger, responding to the demands of progressively heavier weights.
Learn from knowledgeable people
Taking a few lessons from people who know what they’re doing is well worth the time and money.
Once you learn the hows and wherefores of muscle-building, you can use many of the activities of daily life to maintain (and even build) your strength. But I still trek to the gym whenever I’m in town—about 2-3 times a week. But these maintenance workouts take only about 20 minutes.
Guaranteed: lifting will change your life
Weight training will make you stronger, sleeker, and less injury-prone. Almost as important, it will help you follow Miss Piggy’s sage advice: “Never eat more than you can lift.”
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.