Is resistance training the “secret” sauce” for longevity? We already know working muscles against resistance helps compensate for the natural loss of muscle tissue we experience as we age. That’s a good thing! Preserving your muscles tissue leads to greater functionality as you enter the blissful retirement years. Functionality is important, but staying alive long enough to enjoy those retirement benefits counts too. Is there a link between how much muscle strength and mass you have and longevity?
Muscles, Strength, and Longevity: Is There a Link?
Let’s see what science says about this issue. Researchers at UCLA looked at the impact of muscle mass on mortality. They analyzed information from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III that started in 1988 and ended in 1994. They followed almost 3,700 men and women between the ages of 55 and 65 over a 10-year period to see how many died.
Over the course of the study, they collected information about the participants’ body composition using bioelectrical impedance, a technique that measures body fat percentage by sending a weak electrical current through your body. From this, they were able to get a value called the muscle mass index, a measure of how much muscle an individual carries relative to their height. You’re probably more familiar with BMI, or body mass index, the amount a person weighs relative to their height.
When they compared the death rates of the individuals in the lowest quartile of muscle mass to the highest quartile, the mortality rate was markedly lower in those with more muscle relative to those who had less. Of course, this observational study doesn’t show cause and effect. There may be some other factor at play. For example, people with more muscle mass probably eat a healthier diet or are more active than those with less muscle. Still, it’s an interesting association.
As the researchers point out, muscle max index, how much muscle you carry relative to how tall you are, maybe a better indicator of how likely you are to die prematurely than the value health care professionals typically measure, body mass index (BMI). The latter says nothing about body composition.
The Health Benefits of Muscle
You might wonder WHY having more muscle would be linked with greater longevity. For one, if you’re more muscular and less frail, your risk for sustaining a life-threatening injury due to a fall or another injury is lower.
Having more muscle is beneficial, but strength is part of the equation too. Does being strong relative to other people of a similar age work have benefits too? A study published in the British Medical Journal showed muscle strength in men, regardless of body weight, was associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer.
Interestingly, the link still held even when the researchers took into account cardiovascular fitness. That’s important since men who are stronger are likely to be fitter from a cardiovascular standpoint. Unfortunately, this study didn’t look at women but you might anticipate the results would similar. It’s hard to separate out the effects of muscle size versus strength since people who are stronger tend to have more muscle mass.
Quadriceps and Grip Strength
Yet another study showed a link between quadriceps muscle strength and a lower risk of mortality among people with coronary artery disease. Quadriceps strength is not always easy to measure in an office setting, but another test of strength – how much force you can generate when you squeeze your hand together – is. Research shows handgrip strength is a good predictor of future disability, hospitalization, and death.
Another study that looked at 140,000 adults from around the world found those who had greater hand grip strength had lower mortality from all causes, including cardiovascular disease and stroke. Surprisingly, grip strength is an even better predictor of mortality than high systolic blood pressure. Wonder why doctors aren’t using this simple test to evaluate older patients?
Muscles and Insulin Sensitivity
Another reason why having more muscle tissue may lower mortality is because resistance training and having more muscle improves insulin sensitivity. For every 10% increase in muscle mass, insulin resistance decreases by 11%. Why is this important? Insulin resistance is predictive of a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Plus, it’s linked with other health problems like type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
Improving your insulin sensitivity through resistance training and cardiovascular exercise is one thing you can do to lower your risk for health problems, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. By reducing your risk for these diseases, you have a stronger shot at living longer.
Other Health and Longevity Benefits of Muscles
The other problem you want to avoid as you grow older is obesity. It’s easy to let your body weight slide up as you get older, a pound here, a pound there – it adds up. Resistance training to build lean body mass gives your resting metabolic rate a boost, so you burn more fat at rest. Working with weights helps you maintain healthier body composition, more muscle, and less fat, as you age.
If you lift heavy, resistance training also helps protect against bone loss. All women, particularly those with small bones, underweight, or who have a family history, need to focus on bone health and avoiding osteoporosis. Resistance training is your ticket. When muscles pull on tendons and tendons pull against bones with enough force, it stimulates new bone formation. To get the benefits of better bone health, lift heavy, at least 80% of your one-rep max and hone in on those large muscle groups, such as your back and legs. Combine resistance training with high-impact aerobic exercise for the most benefits.
The Bottom Line
As if you needed another reason to resistance train – here’s another one – it could protect you against dying early. Whether you use barbells, dumbbells, or resistance bands or all three, challenge yourself to get stronger and preserve the muscles (and bone density) you have.
UCLA Newsroom. “Older adults: Build muscle and you’ll live longer”
BBC News. “Early death link to muscle power”
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The American Journal of Medicine. Volume 128, Issue 11, November 2015, Pages 1212-1219.
Peloquin Group. “Nine Things That Improve Insulin Sensitivity: Accelerate Fat Loss and Build Muscle Faster”
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J Am Soc Nephrol 13: 1894-1900, 2002.
Medscape Family Medicine. “Decreased Grip Strength May Predict Risk for MI, Stroke: PURE Study” May 14, 2015.
Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Second edition. Baechle and Earle. (2000)
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 Jan;31(1):25-30.
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