It’s hard to open a health-related magazine these days without seeing an article about the importance of exercise. But, despite the established health benefits of exercise, most people still aren’t getting enough! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 23% of Americans meet the federally-established guidelines for exercise.
Exercise is a term that describes any kind of physical activity, but you can roughly divide exercise into two main types: exercise that improves cardiovascular endurance and exercise that builds muscle strength and size. Unfortunately, of the Americans who exercise, most do some form of endurance exercise, usually brisk walking or cycling, exercise that doesn’t build substantial muscle mass like they would get if.
Although cardiovascular exercise is important, strength training is vital for both sexes, especially as we age. The loss of muscle mass that comes with aging is very real. In fact, it’s leading to a new epidemic in Western countries, an epidemic called sarcopenia.
The Battle Against Sarcopenia
Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of muscle tissue. This muscle-ravaging health problem is one that leads to frailty, falls, metabolic issues, and, often, loss of independence in old age. We need muscle mass, strength, and power to do even simple activities, like rising up from a chair. Think about it. You have to have enough muscle power to generate the thrust needed to lift up from a seated position. Many elderly folks can’t do this due to age-related loss of muscle strength and size, a problem that’s often lifestyle related. These unfortunate men and women allowed their muscles atrophy to the point that they have reduced mobility.
What’s the remedy for this? Strength train, of course! Despite the importance strength training plays in long-term health, many Americans aren’t doing it. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine studied this issue and the results may surprise you. 60% of Americans do no strength training at all and 75% do less than the recommended two strength-training sessions weekly. That’s a poor performance! Wouldn’t you agree? The study showed that people who don’t strength train are more likely to fall into certain groups. They’re more commonly female, older in age, obese, have poor health, and tend to be less educated.
Strength training is important for more than just preventing sarcopenia and frailty. The study also showed that engaging in as few as 1 to 2 strength-training sessions weekly was linked with a lower risk of developing a variety of chronic health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. It isn’t surprising that strength training lowers type 2 diabetes risk, as muscle sucks up glucose and removes it from the bloodstream so the body has to release less insulin.
Studies show strength training improves how the body handles glucose. One study found that resistance training using moderate resistance enhanced insulin sensitivity by 48%. This occurred even though the subjects didn’t lose weight. With the epidemic of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, improving insulin sensitivity is more important than ever. Aerobic exercise does this, but strength training has an impact too.
It is Important to Strength Train for Bone Health Too
It’s not just your muscles that benefit from strength training, your skeletal muscles do too. It’s no secret that our bones become less dense with age. In fact, the bones become quite porous and this makes them more likely to break. In fact, women lose up to 2% of their bone density yearly during the decade after menopause. If you haven’t developed a substantial amount of bone before menopause, you can easily end up with fragile bones and a future fracture.
Fortunately, strength training helps reduce bone loss and may even lead to a modest increase in bone density. For example, one study found that women who strength trained for 12 months enjoyed an increase in bone density in their hips and spine. But, how hard do you have to strength train to get this benefit?
Most research shows that you have to lift heavy to boost bone density. How heavy? 80% of your one-rep max or greater to maximize the benefits to your bones. This is an intensity equivalent to one-tenth of the force it takes to fracture a bone, the minimal force you need to turn on the synthesis of new bone.
In response to such a load, bone-synthesizing cells called osteoblasts are activated and begin to lay down new bone tissue. This laydown of new tissue is a protective or adaptive mechanism to help rebuild and reinforce the bone. The force you place on the bone when you lift heavy causes adaptations that, over time, help protect the bone against fracture.
For adequate bone stimulation, strength training must be progressive. As you get stronger, you must lift harder for further adaptations to occur. The benefits are greatest when you focus on compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. High-impact exercise also enhances bone density while non-weight bearing exercises like swimming and cycling do not.
The Bottom Line
Strength training doesn’t just make you stronger, it protects against age-related health problems, like osteoporosis, frailty, fractures, and type 2 diabetes. Yet, too many people still aren’t doing it, especially older people.
The good news is strength training offers benefits at all ages and stages of life. Studies in nursing home residents show that even men and women in the eighth and ninth decade of life can increase the size and strength of their muscles. Aerobic exercise has its place but it’s shortsighted to do aerobic training and not strength train. With so many ways to get a strength workout, even using your own body weight, there’s no excuse not to.
Hopefully, more people will get the message and take advantage of the health benefits that strength training offers.
Science Daily. “Data does the heavy lifting: Encouraging new public health approaches to promote the health benefits of muscle-strengthening exercise (MSE)”
American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2018.07.022.
Diabetes Self-Management. “Increasing Insulin Sensitivity”
Everyday Health. “10 Essential Facts About Osteoporosis”
WebMD.com. “Women and Weight Training for Osteoporosis”
USA Today. “Only 23% of U.S. adults are getting enough exercise, CDC report says”
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