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It's Hard to Resist Resistance Bands

Tribune Media Services

In last week's column, I talked about how much I like weight lifting, as an athlete and as a physician. The more scientists study weight-bearing activity, the more value they find in it, not only in building our bones but also in boosting our metabolism and increasing weight loss.

Weight-bearing activity is not limited to pumping iron.

I set aside time to lift weights two to three times a week, and when I'm home I use a well-loved set of free weights in my garage. But I can't exactly take my free weights with me when I travel, and I'll be traveling a lot over the next several months. I'll be accompanying the U.S. Speed Skating Team to the World Cup and World Championship this month, and, of course, to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver in February. As team physician, I'll take care of the athletes' basic medical needs as well as stitch up the occasional cut or help with any other injury.

Some people use water-filled weights when traveling, but I don't recommend them. To keep up my workout routine while I travel, I make sure to pack my traveling fitness kit (which I'll discuss in more detail in a future column). It includes what my colleague Max Testa, M.D., and I discovered is the underrated star of weight-bearing activity: resistance bands, also called stretch bands.

My patients often discover these for the first time when they do physical therapy. If you've ever done physical therapy, you've probably used them yourself. Resistance bands are essentially surgical tubing.

Using a resistance band is an ideal means of exercising our muscles for several reasons. Its level of resistance increases with the degree of muscle contraction, and it adapts to the angle of the joint. In other words, as you pull it toward you, for example, the band gets harder to pull. This is the opposite of what happens with machine weights or free weights, where your maximum effort occurs at the beginning of the contraction, but as you pull the weight toward you, momentum takes over and it becomes easier. With elastic bands, there's no momentum to bail you out; you have to exert energy the entire time.

Recently, I've been seeing research that indicates resistance exercise training has profound effects on the musculoskeletal system, contributes to the ability to function independently into older age (to stand, walk, climb stairs, lift oneself from the bed or the tub, etc.), and prevents lower back pain, osteoporosis and sarcopenia (age-related loss of strength and muscle mass). Every woman needs to do weight-bearing activity, but particularly women who have osteoporosis or osteopenia, or a family history of osteoporosis.

Recent research has shown that resistance exercise may also positively affect factors such as insulin resistance, resting metabolic rate, glucose metabolism, blood pressure, body fat and gastrointestinal transit time, which are associated with diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Surgical tubing is sold by the foot at medical supply stores. This tubing also comes in a variety of resistances but without handles. However, you can easily knot them in loops. A number of companies now make stretch bands specifically for exercise. Some feature a bar for curls or an overhead military press; others are made to be attached to a door. Exercise stretch bands also vary in levels of resistance, from easy to super-high. Don't make the mistake of buying a resistance band that's too hard for you to stretch.

You may even want to try Max's favorite "resistance band" -- a used bike inner tube. (Mind the valve.)

Is there a fitness topic you want to hear more about? E-mail me at

( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, MD, and DeAnne Musolf.

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