I had a gym membership in Brooklyn for seven years. It’s a YMCA on Atlantic Avenue. It wasn’t fancy, and it didn’t need to be: It was a real community center, and super clean.
I didn’t like the yoga classes because I didn’t enjoy the teacher talking through the whole thing, and too much time on the elliptical made me dizzy. But I loved the pool — and the weight room. I really loved strength training. Usually a male domain, I was often the only woman in the weight room, but I didn’t let that stop me. As a woman in her 50s, it felt too good to hit the machines.
And with a family history of arthritis, I want to keep my bones and muscles happy. It might sound counterintuitive, but strength training done right won't aggravate the joint pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis (OA). In fact, not exercising enough can actually make your joints even more painful and stiff.
This must explain why I felt so alive walking home from the gym.
Weight training for osteoarthritis
When I’m in pain, all I want is a heating pad, ibuprofen, and something to binge-watch. But medicine — and my body — suggest something different. In some cases, especially for women, strength training is the answer not only to alleviating the pain, but making us feel good.
Even The Arthritis Foundation concurs, adding that exercise gives us endorphins that improve overall well-being, ability to control pain, and sleeping habits. A study published in the journal Clinics of Geriatric Medicine says people will OA will benefit from strength training, no matter their age — “even the oldest old with OA.”
I didn’t have to spend hours and hours to see immediate benefits, either. Even moderate exercise can reduce arthritis symptoms and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Feeling strong and beautiful
I tend to get tired and frustrated lying around. Sooner or later, I know I have to get moving. And I’m always glad I do. I also know that my body isn’t perfect by mainstream cultural standards, but it looks pretty good to me.
But as I entered menopause, I had grown increasingly unhappy with my body, including minor stiffness in my joints. Who wouldn’t be?
Motivated to help alleviate the joint pain and look better, I started strength training regularly.
My rule was: If it hurts, don’t do it. I always made sure to warm up on the rowing machine, which I hated. But no matter what, I forced myself to persevere. Because here’s the funny thing — after each rep, sweating and out of breath, I got such an indescribable body sensation. When I was done, my bones and muscles felt like they were singing.
The three main areas of body strength are the trunk and back, the upper body, and the lower body. So I rotated my routines to focus on these individually. I used the lat pulldown, cable biceps bar, the leg press, and the hanging leg raise, along with a few others. I did 2 sets of 10 repetitions before increasing my weights.
I always cooled down and did a few stretches I remembered from my yoga routines. Then I’d treat myself to the steam room — which was pure bliss. Not only was I working on feeling good inside and out, but I also knew I was making my best effort to prevent OA.
I remember walking back from the gym once, stopping for a slice of spinach pie and a cup of green tea, that I felt beautiful and strong.
After I began this routine, I eventually lost concern about losing weight and fitting into cultural norms of a perfect body. Strength training, on that level — my level — wasn’t about pumping iron for hours.
Photo source: Lillian Ann Slugocki
I wasn’t a gym rat. I went three times a week for 40 minutes. I wasn’t in competition with anyone. I already knew it was good for my body; it also felt really good. I now understood what kept people coming back. The “gym high” I felt after every session is real, say experts.
“Strength training taps into the brain’s reward system quickly by stimulating the neural mechanisms that make people feel better which involve brain (feel good) chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins,” explained Claire-Marie Roberts, a senior lecturer in sports psychology, in an interview with The Telegraph.
Like most people, I look to others for inspiration when I need that extra push. On Instagram, I follow Val Baker. Her profile says she’s a 44-year-old fitness coach who trains both civilians and the military as part of the U.S. Air Force Reserve. She's a mom of five “who is proud of her body and the stretch marks she earned carrying her children.”
Baker inspires me because her feed contains images of not only her adorable children, but also a woman who seems to embrace her body, so-called flaws and all.
I also follow Chris Freytag, a 49-year-old health coach who posts workout tips, videos, and inspirational messages. She’s a wonderful role model for men and women in my age group who think strength training isn’t for them. One look at her and you’ll know that’s completely untrue! What I love especially about Freytag is that she encourages her followers to stop searching for the “perfect body” — which is exactly what I have done.
Today, I no longer train for the perfect body — because feeling that good after the gym, it doesn’t matter that I wear a size 14, sometimes a size 16. I like what I see in the mirror and I like how I feel.
I found weight training because I hoped to find a way to help with joint pain and prevent OA — but I’ve gained so much more. As I hunt for a new gym in the suburbs, I’m excited about getting back into a routine. Seven years of weight training has helped me feel strong and beautiful. It’s taught me that while my body isn’t perfect by societal standards, it still looks pretty good to me.
Lillian Ann Slugocki writes about health, art, language, commerce, tech, politics, and pop culture. Her work, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web, has been published in Salon, The Daily Beast, BUST Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, and many others. She has a master’s degree from NYU/The Gallatin School in writing, and lives outside of New York City with her Shih Tzu, Molly. Find more of her work on her website and tweet her @laslugocki