The word "strong" has many meanings. Is a person strong because he or she perseveres when all seems lost, or because they can bench press 200 pounds? Strength is not an either/or dilemma. Being strong of body does not preclude being strong of heart and soul. My next guest tells us that physical and mental strength are connected, especially for women.
Why Women Who Want to Feel Strong Need to Get Strong
by Colleen M. Story
When Connie asked me to contribute a post about strong women, my first thought was of my mother, and right after that, my grandmother and great grandmother.
I was fortunate to come from a long line of strong women. My great grandmother came over from Ireland when she was only 19 years old. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to spend months on a tall ship in those days—alone, no less.
My grandmother lived her life on a dairy farm, and after losing my grandfather when he was only in his mid-forties, spent the rest of her life alone, a strong and independent women who raised milking cows, young steers, chickens, cats, and dogs on her property until her dying day at the age of 93.
My mother fits the definition of strong in so many ways. She raised my older brother and me for several years as a single mom, and I remember her struggle to make ends meet. Regardless of how tight things were, she kept us feeling safe, and was sure to encourage us in whatever natural talents we had.
I could tell many stories of the emotional strengths possessed by these women, but interestingly enough, what comes to mind is not their ability to withstand life’s ups and downs while maintaining a great sense of humor, or their tendency to keep a stiff upper lip even during tough times. I’m thinking of a different kind of strength.
You see, my grandmother was a master at arm wrestling.
Physical Strength Encourages Mental Strength
Usually when we talk about strong women, we’re referring to those who withstood emotional and mental challenges to make significant changes in their lives. But what about women who are physically strong and resilient?
When you spend your life on a dairy farm, you develop defined muscles, and my grandma managed to keep them long into her senior years. She could also go toe-to-toe with you on most any subject, and had a sharp wit to accompany her points of view, but as kids we didn’t look forward to mental debates.
Instead, during our annual visits, we’d challenge her to arm wrestling contests.
Studies have shown that physical strength encourages mental strength. In the late 90s, for example, researchers found that strength training increased overall muscle strength by nearly 40 percent, while also improving mood, reducing anxiety, and boosting confidence.
Another study around the same time found that 12 weeks of strength training in adolescent girls improved confidence and general effectiveness in life.
“These findings offer preliminary support that weight training for strength can improve confidence about a variety of life tasks in adolescent girls,” the researchers wrote, “and could provide the basis for new modalities of therapy for low self-esteem.”
Even when my siblings and I were young teens and Grandma was around 80, she still had enough strength in her hands to give your wrist a twist, after which there was no coming back. We’d practice resisting, but it was near impossible. I can’t help but think now that her ability to stay physically strong had something to do with her avoiding any type of mental decline, as well.
A 2015 study found it to be true. One group of participants who already had mild cognitive impairment went through six months of weight training. The other, a control group, did not. Results showed that those who trained experienced significant improvements in overall cognitive function, specifically in abilities like planning, organizing, devising strategies, and visual memory. The improvements were still there twelve months after the training stopped.
“We know weight training stimulates hormones that make muscles grow and it's possible these hormones are also having similar benefits for brain function," said Professor Fiatarone Singh.
In a report by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), scientists state that strength training not only reduces the effects of arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and back pain, but can have a major effect on a person’s mental and emotional health.
“Strength training exercises can also reduce depression and boost self-confidence and self-esteem,” the authors wrote, “and improve your sense of well-being.”
Sometimes the Body Needs to Come First
I’ve noticed the effects myself. Growing up on the ranch, I was challenging my muscles every day, but after I left home and settled into my work as a writer, things changed. I started to feel tired more often, and my body felt soft and squishy. I now know that much of that was because I had lost muscle.
When I got back into doing some push-ups, and started lifting hand weights and working with resistance bands, I felt my old strength come back—and with it, a renewed vigor in the mornings. I was ready to tackle my day in ways I wasn’t before. I also felt the effects in an increased sense of confidence and empowerment.
“Strong girls exude a confidence that is intoxicating,” says fitness blogger Neghar Fonooni. “When you realize your outer strength, you can tap into your inner strength, and that begins to radiate.”
It’s a shame that many women feel averse to strength training, convinced it’s a “guy thing,” because there’s nothing like feeling the ease of lifting your own 50-pound bag of dog food into the trunk, or being able to dash out 20 push-ups without breaking a sweat.
Young girls, in particular, who are used to their role models looking stick-thin, may be afraid to develop too many muscles, fearing they’ll look freakish, but the reality is that getting stronger helps define a woman’s figure and creates more attractive curves. But these may be considered secondary to the mental and emotional benefits.
Lyn Paul, a Montana State University Extension professor who studied the effect of weight training on women, told the Los Angeles Times that regardless of age, women gain self-confidence from getting stronger.
"My study found that the No. 1 benefit of strength is that the enhanced function makes them feel empowered," she said. "This whets their appetite for more strength, pushing them further down the health-and-fitness road."
Personal trainer Alexa Towersey has had similar experiences with her clients. “Weight training doesn’t just deliver a strong, healthy body and a beautiful aesthetic, it’s also very empowering. There is nothing more rewarding than watching a woman lifting heavy weights with confidence, and then watching how this translates into her attitude toward the rest of her life.”
Try Getting Physically Stronger to Feel Emotionally Stronger
I’m addicted to strength training now. I’m on the lookout for ways to get stronger that I can incorporate into my home-based routine. The strong women in my family continue to inspire me. My mom, for example, still throws a bowling ball screaming down the lane faster than any of her friends on the league—the only one of her peers that looks vibrant and strong on her way up to the red line.
If you’re a woman who may be feeling a little unsure of yourself, I encourage you to try strength training, if you haven’t already. You may be surprised at the results. As you lift more pounds, you may find that you’re able to approach other things in your life with increased inner strength, as well.
If nothing else, imagine someday smoking your grandkid in an arm wrestling contest.
Tsutsumi T., et al., “Physical fitness and psychological benefits of strength training in community dwelling older adults,” Appl Human Sci., November 1997; 16(6):257-66, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9545677.
Jean Barrett Holloway, “Self-Efficacy and Training for Strength in Adolescent Girls,” Journal of Applied Psychology, June 1988; 18(8): 699-719, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1988.tb00046.x/abstract;jsessionid=17DD4304C5E3570CCD80A3338E6F0D72.f01t04.
Roy Wallack, “Women find boost in ability and other benefits in strength training,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/health/mind-body/la-he-strong-20150523-column.html.
Rachel Jacqueline, “How lifting weights helps women shed fat and gain health and confidence,” South China Morning Post, December 19, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-beauty/article/1892386/how-lifting-weights-helps-women-shed-fat-and-gain-health-and.
“Pumping iron could ward off dementia,” The University of Sydney, February 16, 2015, http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=14605.
Colleen M. Story has been a full-time writer, editor, and ghostwriter for nearly 20 years. She’s worked for high-profile clients like Gerber Baby Products, Kellogg’s, Fresenius Medical Care, and Nicole Miller Skin Care, with many articles appearing in Healthline, Renegade Health, Women’s Health, 4Health Magazine, and more.
She’s the author of Rise of the Sidenah, a 2015 North American Book Awards winner, and Loreena’s Gift, a literary novel released by Dzanc Books in April 2016. She maintains a robust inspirational blog for writers and other creatives at Writing and Wellness, with her own personal website at colleenmstory.com. She lives in Idaho.
Rise of the Sidenah is a magical fantasy about a young sculptress forbidden from practicing her art, until a powerful man offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse. He draws her into a world of deceit, murder, and betrayal, leaving her no choice but to engage him in battle to save the ones she loves.
· 2015 North American Book Awards Winter, Fantasy
· 2015 New Apple Book Awards Official Selection, Young Adult
Loreena’s Gift: Loreena Picket thinks she knows herself. A blind young woman who lives with her uncle, a reverend at a small- town church, she’s a dutiful niece and talented pianist for the congregation. But they’re both hiding a terrible secret. Loreena can kill people with the touch of her hand.
While her uncle sees her as an angel of mercy, helping usher the terminally ill members of his flock into the afterlife, Loreena has her doubts. She cooperates with her uncle until her troubled older brother returns to town. When she reveals her power by saving him from a local drug dealer, she is drawn into a sinister and dangerous world that will test the true nature of her talent and force her to consider how far she is willing to go to survive.
Release Date April 12, 2016. Available at all online bookstores and from Dzanc Books.
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