Any form of physical activity offers health benefits compared to being a couch potato, but in terms of longevity, you might think aerobic exercise is the form of exercise you should be doing the most of. Not necessarily. Although research supports the longevity benefits of staying active in general, resistance training may be just as important as aerobic exercise for helping you enter the eighth or ninth decade with a high level of fitness.
Physical Activity Has Longevity Benefits
Physical activity, even modest amounts, lowers mortality. One study looking at the exercise habits of 650,000 adults found those who got the recommended amount of exercise, about 150 minutes of physical activity weekly, lived an average of 3.4 years longer than inactive adults. Those who did twice this amount enjoyed 4.2 additional years of life. What’s exciting is that physical activity seems to extend lifespan in healthy, overweight and obese people alike. Everyone benefits!
Pretty impressive, especially when you consider the other health benefits of exercise, like how it makes you look and feel. Working up a sweat improves QUALITY of life too. But what about another form of exercise – resistance training – the training we do to preserve lean body mass and build strength and muscle endurance? Does it, too, reduce your risk for dying prematurely?
Resistance Training Exercise and Longevity
As you might expect, most research has looked at the longevity benefits of aerobic exercise as compared to resistance training, but a study carried out by a research team at the University of California at Los Angeles looked specifically at the effects of muscle mass on mortality.
In this study, researchers measured the muscle mass of 3659 older adults, age 55 and older for men and 65 and older for women, using bioelectrical impedance and compared it to their death rates over a 15 year period. Bioelectrical impedance uses a weak electrical current to measure the quantity of muscle or fat a person has on their body. An electrical current flows more quickly through muscle than it does fat. The researchers used this information to calculate each participant’s muscle mass index, the ratio of muscle mass to height squared.
What they discovered was adults with the most muscle mass on their frames had a significantly lower risk of dying compared to those with the least. Interestingly, BMI, or body mass index, wasn’t linked with mortality.
Although this study doesn’t show cause and effect, it does suggest that possessing more muscle mass is a marker for longer term survival. It also suggests that muscle to fat percentage is a more important marker for longevity than BMI, which only takes into account weight relative to height. A person with a higher ratio of muscle to fat is likely to be metabolically healthier than someone with a lower ratio. It also points out the deficiencies of using BMI as a measure of healthy body composition. BMI, or body mass index, tells you nothing about how much muscle you carry on your frame. For example, muscle-bound weightlifters can easily fall into the overweight or obese category based on BMI.
Why Might Having More Muscle Mass Help You Live Longer?
You gotta love muscle! According to a review article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, muscle protein serves as a pool of amino acids to replace those used by other bodily tissues. Muscle protein reserves play a key role in survival during times of stress and acute or chronic illness. Infection, injuries such as burns, and advanced cancer all lead to tissue damage and protein breakdown and increase the demand for amino acids your body needs for repair and survival. Plus, during times of extreme stress or starvation, proteins are broken down into amino acids to make glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. Unless you have adequate reserves of protein, your chances of surviving certain types of injury or illness are greatly reduced. So, muscle reserves play an important role in recovery from critical injuries or illness.
Carrying more muscle mass not only protects you against dying from acute illness or trauma, but it also defends against some chronic illnesses. One of the biggest health problems that can cut your lifespan short is insulin resistance, a strong risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed individuals with more muscle mass on their frame were less likely to fall victim to insulin resistance and the metabolic problems it’s linked with. In fact, they found a direct inverse relationship between muscle mass and the risk of insulin resistance. In other words, the more muscle you have, the lower your risk. Plus, a high muscle to fat ratio increases resting metabolism, thereby protecting against obesity, another health issue that can cut your life short.
Resistance Training Improves Quality of Life Too
Living a long time has less meaning if you can’t enjoy the process of living. If you’ve ever seen a frail, elderly person in a nursing home that can barely stand, you know you don’t want to end up like that. Even worse are older folks who fall and fracture a hip because they don’t have enough muscle or bone mass to support them. Whether you like it or not, you lose muscle mass with age, and resistance training is the number one thing you can do to retain lean body mass and stay functional into an advanced age. Don’t forget – when you pull on muscles during resistance training, you also pull on tendons and bones. This stimulus causes bones to lay down new tissue, as long as you’re using a challenging resistance. Having strong bones definitely improves quality of life. Ask anyone with osteoporosis and they’ll tell you they wished they had lifted weights!
The Bottom Line
Now you know resistance training not only improves how you look and feel and your quality of life, but it can also help you survive a catastrophic injury or illness and even help you live longer. If you want the best shot at living a long life AND staying functional, grab a pair of challenging weights or resistance bands and work all the muscles in your body on a consistent basis – and have fun doing it.
National Cancer Institute. “NIH study finds leisure-time physical activity extends life expectancy as much as 4.5 years”
PLOS One. “Leisure Time Physical Activity of Moderate to Vigorous Intensity and Mortality: A Large Pooled Cohort Analysis” November 6, 2012.
Am J Clin Nutr September 2006 vol. 84 no. 3 475-482.
Medscape Family Medicine. “Muscle Mass Linked to Risk for Insulin Resistance” August 4, 2011.
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. “Relative Muscle Mass Is Inversely Associated with Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes. Findings from The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey” July 21, 2011.
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