Just about everyone understands that physical activity is important for health. I don’t think anyone would question that, and most people recognize that they feel better during times where they are regularly exercising. And yet, despite this being widely understood, many of us don’t fully appreciate just how powerful exercise is for promoting health and longevity. We tend to get more excited about new medical treatments, or supplements with new promising research. But if exercise were a pharmaceutical, it would very likely be the most potent longevity agent we have.
In this article, I’ll discuss some of the research to back that up. Many forms of exercise are important, but I’m going to focus on weight training, and explain why it’s my favorite form of exercise to recommend—and why it can change your life.
Weight Training as Part of a Comprehensive Workout Plan
To start, I’ll clarify that my highlighting weight training should not diminish the benefits of many other popular forms of exercise, including yoga, running, swimming, team sports, zumba, cycling—the list goes on. I think any and all forms of exercise are fantastic, and I would probably argue the best form of exercise is the one that you will consistently do, and ones that you genuinely derive enjoyment from. The most important thing is that we are doing something regularly! Total physical activity levels are a strong predictor of our lifespan, as highlighted in this 2020 study which found that physical activity levels were more predictive of mortality than even someone’s age or their smoking status.
The Goal of Weight Training
The primary goal of lifting weights is to stress our muscles with a load, which then causes our muscles to adapt and grow in size and strength. As you add muscle mass and build strength, you can start lifting more and more weight, which then allows you to get even stronger, and so on.
Adding muscle mass is helpful for a lot more than just a nice beach body. Muscle tissue requires a lot of “fuel” (calories), and so helps us maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Research has shown that more muscle mass is correlated with better insulin sensitivity, which is key for metabolic health. Building and maintaining muscle can help us stay metabolically healthy, improve cholesterol levels, and avoid problems like metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and fatty liver.
More muscle strength and control also gives us the benefit of additional stability to our skeletal system. This is critical as we get older and have more difficulty with balance. Falls, particularly those that result in serious fractures such as hip fracture, are common in older individuals and result in significant mortality. The CDC reports over 32,000 deaths annually in older adults resulting from falls. And this significantly underestimates the true burden of falls, as each year over 300,000 adults are hospitalized for hip fractures, and older adults who have hip fracture surgery are 3-4 times more likely to die within one year than the general population. By maintaining our muscle mass as we age, we can better stabilize ourselves and be less likely to fall and obtain a serious fracture.
Use It Or Lose It
One of the main reasons to be concerned with weight training is that muscle is very much something that falls under the category of “use it or lose it”. Research shows that after age 50 people lose, on average, 1-2% of their muscle mass each year. Some studies show up to 4%. It is harder to improve muscle mass after age 50 (it starts becoming more difficult at age 30) due to a variety of factors including hormonal changes and a less efficient metabolism. But that just means that no matter where you are in life, it makes sense to work on strengthening muscles—if you are younger, you can put on more muscle mass to help have more of a “buffer” in your older years when it becomes more difficult not to lose muscle mass. And if you are older, it is imperative to work on muscle strength so you slow the loss of muscle.
The Evidence for Weight Training
I’ve explained several likely reasons why maintaining strength and muscle mass would be important, but let me show you the data that really highlights how beneficial this is. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis looking over data from nearly two million participants showed that, compared to those with lower handgrip strength (a marker of overall strength), those with higher handgrip strength had about a 30% reduced risk of death for the study duration. They also tested strength with a knee extension test and found a 14% reduced risk of death in those found to be stronger. Neither test is a perfect measure of overall strength or muscle mass, but we can see the overall trend that greater strength correlates to significantly lower risk of death.
A 2018 study did a similar analysis, but also tried to differentiate between muscle strength and muscle mass to see which might matter more for longevity. Using knee extensor tests, those who were in the lowest 25% were considered to have “low muscle strength.” What they found was that all-cause mortality (death from any cause) was significantly higher—twice as likely, in fact—in the group found to have low muscle strength. Interestingly, this was the case whether they had low muscle mass or not. This suggests we should focus on becoming strong, whether or not that is accompanied with noticeably large, bulky muscles.
Another crucial part of this analysis was that these associations between low muscle strength and mortality persisted even across different levels of physical activity and sedentary time. This means that even those who were highly physically active didn’t have the same benefits as those who also had strength. The associations also persisted across different levels of metabolic syndrome, which is a group of characteristics including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride level. It seems that just about everyone will see benefits from building strength.
Weight Training and Quality of Life
The last key point I want to make is that weight training and building muscular strength isn’t just about extending your years. It’s about extending the quality of your years—your “healthspan” as opposed to simply your lifespan. Building muscle can not only increase self-esteem and confidence, but also allow you to stay active and resilient as a human being. You can move more confidently and worry less about falling and having a serious injury.
It can be daunting to start doing weight training if you haven’t done any before. I definitely recommend taking it slow to start, and if you do not feel confident it can be highly beneficial to spend a little bit of time with a trainer at first who can show you the ropes and help you learn how to correctly perform exercises that hit all the major muscle groups in your body. There is a wide variety of weight training exercises and techniques with unique benefits, and I’m not going to go into specific exercises or recommend regimens in this article. But I hope you can see the upsides of weight training, and consider adding it into your exercise regimens so you can make sure you get and stay strong throughout your life.