There's no question that aerobic exercise such as walking and swimming is an effective way to help your heart, cut risk for diabetes, and possibly even lower risk of some cancers. But leading exercise physiologists report that by middle age, weight training may be just as important to maintaining quality of life by preventing age-related loss of muscle and bone. Despite these recommendations, it is hard for the average person to know whether they should take up the activity because of the many myths surrounding weight training.

Some people assume lifting weights is only for people in top physical condition. In reality, weight-lifting is a great way for someone who's out of shape to gain the strength necessary to begin a program of aerobic exercise. Beginners should choose a starting weight that keeps lifting challenging but never uncomfortable. As with any exercise program, people who are over-50, sedentary, or have high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes or osteoporosis should check with their doctor before they begin.

Contrary to popular opinion, age is not a limiting factor in weight training. A growing number of studies focusing on the results of strength training in elderly nursing home patients, report stronger bones, better balance, and a decreased need for canes and walkers.

If you are concerned that strength training might be too hard on your joints, exercise physiologists suggest that proper weight training can actually ease the pressure on joints by strengthening the surrounding muscles.

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A fear of developing bulky muscles should also not deter one from weight training. Body builders earn their big muscles with long workouts using extra-heavy weights. Training with lighter weights, however, will tighten and tone sagging muscles without adding bulk. It may also help to improve posture and lessen backaches.

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If your primary goal is to lose weight, you may be disappointed to learn that muscle weighs more than fat. So, in terms of lower numbers on the scale, strength training may not do what aerobic exercise can. However, strength training can help in re-shaping your body both by toning sagging muscles and by creating more calorie-burning muscle tissue.

Weight training equipment can seem out of reach, but it may be closer than you think. The machines seen in fancy health clubs can also be found in most YMCAs, where membership fees are usually reasonable and flexible. These machines make it easier to maintain good form as you lift. If you choose to workout at home, you can use a leg cuffs and dumbbells; even food cans, milk jugs filled with sand, or elastic exercise bands can be used as weight equipment.

A strength training regimen does not mean that you can forget about your current walking program, stretching routine, or healthy diet. Weight training can't replace stretching for its flexibility benefits, nor is it a substitute for the heart health and overall fitness benefits of aerobic exercise. No matter what exercise you do, you won't maintain a healthy weight if you eat more calories than you burn. Weight training's muscle and bone building benefits will also be lost without the protein, calcium and other nutrients that come from a balanced diet.

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Weight training can't do it all. But it's a valuable piece in the puzzle of overall good health, that includes regular physical activity and a balanced, low-fat diet.

Karen Collins, M.S., R.D.