Strength training has health benefits for people of all ages. Of course, you already knew that! But, can it lower your risk of dying prematurely? We think of aerobic or cardiovascular exercise as the form of physical activity that lowers the risk of premature death – and research supports this idea. Studies show that aerobic fitness is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular risk and all-cause mortality as well. In fact, a 44-year study even found that regular aerobic activity was associated with a reduction in cancer deaths among men. Although this study only looked at men, being physically active may lower the risk of certain types of cancer in women too, especially hormone-dependent cancers, like breast cancer.
Yet, we hear less about is the impact strength training has on dying prematurely. We know that strength training keeps us strong and functional – but can it, too, lower the risk of dying prematurely?
Strength Training and Risk Of Dying Prematurely
In a recent study carried out by Penn State College of Medicine, researchers looked at data on more than 30,000 seniors over the age of 65. In the study, 1 in 10 of the older adults strength trained at least twice per week, including whole-body muscle strengthening exercises. After following this group of seniors for 15 years, they found that strength training did, indeed, pay off. The seniors who worked their muscles against resistance at least twice weekly cut their risk of dying over the 15-year study by almost half! Interestingly, they also found that participants who strength trained were 19% less likely to die of cancer.
These findings are encouraging as they show strength training is correlated with a lower risk of dying from all causes, although it doesn’t necessarily show cause and effect. For example, seniors who strength trained may have had other habits that reduced their risk of dying over the 15- year period. Yet, research also shows that grip strength is correlated with all-cause mortality as well. Individuals who have a weaker grip are at higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and all causes. So, strength matters! Don’t be surprised if your physician checks your grip strength when you come in for a visit!
Strength is important, but we know strength training has benefits that go beyond boosting muscle strength and size. For example, having a higher muscle to fat ratio helps improve insulin sensitivity and lowers the risk of pre-diabetes and diabetes. Muscle acts as a “sink” to suck up glucose from the bloodstream so that the pancreas doesn’t have to produce as much insulin to get glucose into cells. In fact, research shows that strength training is as effective as aerobic exercise for improving insulin sensitivity.
And Then There’s Osteoporosis
Another common health problems in seniors, especially women, that can shorten their lifespan is a bone fracture due to osteoporosis. We gradually lose bone mass with age and this loss accelerates after menopause. You begin to lose bone mass during early adulthood, but this process speeds up once you go through menopause as you lose the bone-building influence of estrogen. By the time you reach your 80’s, you’ll have lost as much as 30% of your muscle mass. Imagine how much that increases your risk of metabolic problems and the risk of falling!
Fortunately, strength training can help you avoid bone fractures in two ways. For one, high-resistance strength training helps preserve bone mass as you age, so you’re at lower risk of developing osteoporosis. Plus, strength and power training improve overall functionality, thereby reducing your risk of injuries and falls. You can increase the balance challenge to further reduce your odds of falling by doing one-legged squats and deadlifts as they help you develop better proprioception.
Strength Training is Beneficial for All Ages
You don’t have to be a young or middle-aged adult to enjoy the benefits from strength training. Even the elderly can improve muscle strength and increase the size of their muscles through training. Two to three sessions of strength training per week, including exercises that work all the major muscle groups are enough to offer benefits. What’s more, older people who strength train are physically more capable than those who don’t, so it enhances the quality of life too! Longer life, healthier life, better life – those are the benefits of weight training. After all, it’s just as important to have a good quality of life as it is to live a long life. Strength training is good for both! Hopefully, you’re convinced by now that you need to work your muscles against resistance.
The Bottom Line
Studies looking at strength training and mortality show a correlation between the two, not necessarily causation. Still, there are compelling reasons to strength train throughout life. Working your muscles against resistance helps you stay functional and lowers the risk of injury. Plus, it may reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases due to aging, particularly type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Keep in mind that being more physically active, in general, is linked with health benefits, partially because it reduces the time you spend sitting. Too much sitting is a risk factor for mortality, independent of structured exercise.
Also, don’t forget about other health habits. You can also reduce your risk of dying early by not smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol, and by limiting refined carbs and sugar in your diet. Strength training is another tool in your longevity arsenal – so take advantage of it! There’s so much we can do from a lifestyle standpoint to enhance longevity and improve our quality of life.
Reuters.com. “Better aerobic fitness may reduce men’s risk of cancer death”
Consumer Health News. “Seniors: Pump Iron, Live Longer; Twice-Weekly Strength Training Cut Risk of Dying during 15-Year Study”
Physical Activity Patterns Associated with Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Reduced Mortality: The Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study.
Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2011 May; 108(21): 359–364.
The Lancet. Volume 386, No. 9990, p226–227, 18 July 2015.
WebMD. “Is it OK to Strength Train If I Have Diabetes?”
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