Who doesn’t want to live a long, healthy life? Numerous studies show that aerobic exercise, movement that gets your heart rate up for sustained periods of time, reduces mortality. No surprises here! Aerobic exercise enhances heart and blood vessel health in a number of ways. Just as importantly, it improves insulin sensitivity and lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes. The benefits of aerobic exercise for heart health and reduced mortality are well established.
Strength Training and Longevity: Is There a Link?
But, what about strength training? It’s clear that we need to work out muscles against resistance to preserve muscle strength and mass as we age–but can it help you live longer too?
A large study carried out by researchers at the University of Sydney suggests that strength training may help us stick around longer. In this study, researchers looked at the outcomes of 80,306 Australian adults. The goal was to compare rates of premature death in people who did and didn’t strength train. Unfortunately, the number of people who met the guidelines for weight training and aerobic exercise in Australia was low, only around 15%.
What they found was that people in the study who strength trained enjoyed a 23% reduction in the risk of premature death. More surprising was the finding that strength training was linked with a 31% reduction in dying from cancer as well. We don’t typically think of strength training as lowering the risk of cancer. Although this was an observational study and doesn’t show causation, it suggests that aerobic exercise isn’t the only type of workout that contributes to longevity.
Interestingly, the study didn’t show a reduction in heart disease risk among participants who strength trained, so aerobic exercise may still have more benefits for heart health and the prevention of cardiovascular disease. On the plus side, some studies show that strength training improves insulin sensitivity and lowers blood pressure and that’s important for reducing cardiovascular risk.
Another finding in the study was that you don’t need fancy gym equipment, weight machines, or even barbells and dumbbells to get the potential longevity benefits of strength training. In the study, subjects who did body weight exercises enjoyed the same perks as those who lifted weights at a gym. Most people are motivated to exercise more when they don’t have to jump through a lot of hoops to do it. That’s what makes home workouts so advantageous.
This isn’t the first study to show the longevity benefits of strength training, although it’s one of the largest. Another study carried out by researchers at Penn State found that older adults who strength train at least twice a week lived longer. As part of the study, researchers used data from the National Health Interview Survey that ran from 1997 to 2001. It included more than 30,000 senior citizens. Those are encouraging statistics!
How Might Strength Training Lower the Risk of Dying Early?
We know that training our bodies against resistance helps preserve muscle mass, strength, and power. These are all important for avoiding injury, including injuries that can lead to death. High resistance strength training doesn’t just enhance muscle size and strength; it also helps preserve bone density, a leading cause of falls. One of the bigger dangers of falling is breaking a hip. Hip fractures are a top cause of death and disability in older people. Other studies show a link between muscle strength, as measured by grip strength, and longevity as well as quality of life. In fact, one study found that grip strength was a stronger predictor of future heart disease than blood pressure measurements.
What about the link between strength training and cancer? One way that strength training may lower cancer risk is by improving insulin sensitivity. When your cells are more sensitive to insulin, you have less insulin circulating in your bloodstream. This is important because insulin is a growth factor and one that stimulates the proliferation of cells, including cancer cells. In addition, insulin resistance is linked with chronic inflammation and the release of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that can drive tumor growth. Cancer types most strongly linked with insulin resistance include breast, colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.
Strength training also builds lean body mass. Suppose you sustain a serious injury and can’t move around for a while. You could lose substantial muscle mass before you can get up and around again. The extra muscle you gain from strength training is an extra buffer that lessens the likelihood of becoming frail before you recover. Also, extra muscle serves as extra padding on your body. Should you be in an injury, that extra layer of muscle covering your organs could lower your risk of a serious injury.
Strength Training Improves Health Span
Living long isn’t necessarily desirable if you live the last years of your life unable to do the things you enjoy. Strong muscles help you function better at any age and loss of muscle due to aging leads to frailty and a higher risk of falls and injuries. With regard to health span, strength training could be more important than aerobic exercise because lack of strength, power, and good balance skills limit your ability to do the things you enjoy. You’ll simply enjoy life more if you’re strong and have the ability to get around and do the things that bring you happiness.
The Bottom Line
Aerobic exercise is important but don’t neglect strength training. It’s the key to the quality of life as you age. Of course, a well-balanced exercise program should include both. And remember, every workout counts!
ScienceDaily.com. “Strength exercise as vital as aerobic new research finds”
Emmanuel Stamatakis, I-Min Lee, Jason Bennie, Jonathan Freeston, Mark Hamer, Gary O’Donovan, Ding Ding, Adrian Bauman, Yorgi Mavros. Does strength promoting exercise confer unique health benefits? A pooled analysis of eleven population cohorts with all-cause, cancer, and cardiovascular mortality endpoints. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2017.
Penn State University. “Strength training helps older adults live longer”
Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Dec; 14(12): 1447.
Reuters.com. “Strong grip may predict longer life at all ages”
Integr Cancer Ther. 2003 Dec;2(4):315-29.
Medscape Family Medicine. “Strength Training May Best Aerobics for Cardioprotection”
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