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Strength Training – Best thing you can do for your health?

April 25, 2020. Andy Horide, Osteopath

Since the age of roughly fifteen-sixteen, I seemed to gravitate to the gym in my school. I found it fun and something I wanted to do. I managed to find similar friends that liked going as well, so we would spend our lunchtimes trying to lift as much as possible. I think I liked the idea of seeing how far I could push my body and trying to lift more than my peers.

Since then and up until my late 20’s I trained reasonably consistently. It was part of my life. I found that I always liked training with other people, it had a social aspect for me. I still go to the gym now, but since getting *cough* married, I’ve become lazier. Not sure why?

When some of us think of lifting weight, we imagine people in a gym sweating away; staring at themselves vainly in the mirror. This understandably can put people off the gym. While yes, some people are doing this for vanity reason this shouldn’t be the main driving force that makes us go to the gym.

Even though I was made fun of for doing so, I used to read ‘Men’s Health’ magazines all the time. The teasing was not because I wanted to educate myself but probably because it had a half-naked muscly man on the front cover—a sign of the time I guess.

I used to see the snippets about how to ‘grow muscles fast’ or ‘best foods for boosting testosterone’; for me, it was like finding keys to unlock the full potential of my body. I think this started the catalyst of my interest in understanding the body and the use of science to discover that.

I’m going to show you now scientific gems of research that show why we shouldn’t let lifting weights be just the property of the younger generation.

Lifting weights has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and stroke, boosts brainpower, burns through calories and more.

It needs to be said that we should make a distinction between the benefits of lifting weights and doing aerobic exercise (cardio). These two aren’t mutually exclusive; there are defined benefits from either that you cannot get from doing just one.

Also, I know strength training might be synonymous with lifting dumbbells in a gym. This isn’t the case; any form of resistance training (that’s exercises that cause muscles to contract against an external force) helps build strength. This external resistance can be in the form of weights, but also elastic bands, special resistance training machines or just your body weight.

The Benefits (Research)

A study published in March 2019 that considered over 12,500 participants found that: just one hour a week is associated with reduced risks of CVD (heart attack and stroke) by up to 70% and similar results were found in all-causes mortality. This was independent of aerobic exercise.

Another study of 100,000 women found that those who did at least an hour a week of strength training significantly lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes.

A study comparing someone’s grip strength and its relation to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancer (all cancer, colorectal, lung, breast, and prostate).

It was found that people who have higher grip strength have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and are at reduced risk of premature death by any cause. This excluded colon cancer in women and prostate cancer and lung cancer in both men and women. Grip strength is a good indicator of overall muscle strength.

How does all this work?

We don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind why lifting weights has these effects. One of the leading hypotheses is that muscles play an essential role in the regulation of the body’s glucose levels. Combined with insulin, it absorbs glucose from the blood and stores it in the form of glycogen. Bigger muscles mean a more significant sink for glucose and a higher number of cells that transport and clear glucose from the body, which all helps ward off type 2 diabetes, in which blood glucose levels become too high. High blood glucose levels are also associated with cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

Another benefit of weight training is that it has a considerable positive effect on our body weight. When people think of losing weight, they usually think of running or some other form of aerobic exercise. While aerobic exercise will help, it may not be as efficient as doing weight training. While initially, jogging might burn more calories than weight training. It takes energy (calories) to repair that muscle tissue after weight training, as well as maintaining that new muscle tissue. So over the long term, you will be burning considerably more calories by having more muscle tissue.

Having a higher percentage of lean muscle mass will undoubtedly help you lose weight. Therefore this should help lower your BMI. Having a lower BMI is highly associated with having a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Another benefit of weight training is that it helps ward off osteoporosis (weakening of the bones). It does this by placing stress on the bones, triggering the activity of osteoblasts and inhibiting osteoclasts, helping us to maintain, and even build, denser bones. Osteoblasts form new bone tissue, and osteoclasts break down bone.

Does it help your mind?

If all that information hasn’t convinced you yet to go out and start lifting weights over going for a run. There is a growing body of research that is finding a link between a decline in muscle strength with a decline in memory, reaction time and assessments on verbal and spatial abilities.

These findings were once again found to be specified concerning muscle training over exercise in general.

A study found that older women who lifted weights once a week for a year had significant improvements in cognitive tests of attention, compared with women who performed balance and toning classes. These mechanisms aren’t fully understood yet. A popular hypothesis is that exercise long term improves blood circulation within the brain leading to the upregulation of certain neurotrophins (BDNF). These lead to structural changes within the brain and the functional enhancements of new neurons. This means you have a brain with enhanced cognitive benefits and resists age-related decline.

Do I have to join a gym to do resistance exercises?

The answer to this is no, but for some people, it can be useful. In a gym, you are more likely to be able to get a full-body workout and target specific areas more easily. Also, gyms usually have personal trainers. I would recommend using a personal trainer if you haven’t been to a gym before. They can show you the plethora of exercises and how to perform them correctly.

The NHS recommends: ‘do strengthening activities that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) on at least 2 days a week’

That advice regarding twice a week comes from evidence that your first workout of the week will give you the most benefit compared with nothing at all. Your second workout will provide a bit more benefit, as will the third, but then the results plateau.

Examples of muscle-strengthening activities:

  • carrying heavy shopping bags
  • yoga
  • pilates
  • tai chi
  • lifting weights
  • working with resistance bands
  • doing exercises that use your body
  • weight, such as push-ups and sit-ups
  • heavy gardening, such as digging and shovelling

You do have to push yourself when doing these exercises, it should be hard.

Go out and lift more!

Our muscle strength peaks in our 30s, then slowly declines. So I should be now following my own advice and structure resistance exercises into my weekly routine as a priority. As we all know, it’s easier to maintain muscle mass than build it.

We don’t realise this is happening to us until, eventually, we are unable to get out of chairs or climb stairs.

Older people don’t just stand to benefit from improving their strength. We are discovering unexpected health boosts from building muscle for all adults that go way beyond merely being strong.

The main thing I advise my patients is to keep it simple and attainable. This is so you can be consistent, which is critical. You can do squats in front of the TV or some press-ups against the kitchen worktop. Just make sure you tire yourself out. Write it down somewhere and tick it off each week, be accountable.

One final note is that this doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any aerobic exercise; this is all about balance. Both resistance exercise and aerobic exercise seem to benefit us in different ways, so do both. Aim to do a little every day.

Our bodies are evolutionarily designed to be moved, so take advantage of our knowledge of that fact.

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