The Promotion of Health and Longevity Through Strength Training

On March 5, 2018 by Matthew Chan

Strength training (also known as resistance training) is defined as a form of physical exercise that involves the use of resistance (via bodyweight, machines, heavy objects, bands, etc.) to produce muscular contractions in order to build strength, anaerobic endurance and size of the skeletal muscles. It is a training method used among bodybuilders, weightlifters, powerlifters and strongmen to develop their physiques and strength. There are many health benefits associated with strength training. However, due to negative stereotypes associated with bodybuilding and physical culture in general, the pursuit of muscular hypertrophy and strength is commonly perceived purely as a superficial one. With the media portraying bodybuilders and strength athletes as narcissistic and over-sized meatheads, it is understandable why the general public may be turned off from the idea of lifting weights.

The health benefits of strength training are often overlooked due to countless reports of early deaths among pro bodybuilders whose early graves have been the result of drug abuse, as well as popular dietary and health-related misconceptions associated with bodybuilding. Unfortunately, when such news and misinformation is spread throughout the media, it only further perpetuates the negative connotations associated with strength training, turning people away from an otherwise healthy activity. It is for these reasons that the clinical applications of strength training are underappreciated, underexplored or ignored.

The benefits of exercise are well-known, but little attention has been given specifically to strength training, which has an array of health benefits that no other mode of exercise can provide. In this article, I will explore the roles that strength training plays in the amelioration of health, longevity, and quality of life.

Strength Training Extends Life Expectancy

The ageing process results in a decline of muscle mass and strength (1). Research has shown that people with less muscle mass have a higher risk of mortality (2). In fact, those who possess less muscle mass are 20% more likely to die from natural causes (3). This is attributed to the amino acids (the building blocks of protein and muscle tissue) contained within the musculoskeletal system, which are used as a source of fuel for the immune system (4). Muscle mass serves as a reservoir for amino acids, so the more muscle mass the body has, the more resources it has to allocate to the body’s healing processes, improving recovery from injury, illness, and even cancer (5). For example, one study showed that lung cancer patients who possessed more muscle mass had a lower chance of recurrence after receiving radiation therapy, as well as a higher chance of survival overall compared to patients with less muscle mass (6).

Furthermore, a prospective cohort study shows that men with lower levels of upper body and lower body strength had 1.59 times greater risk of death from heart disease, 1.24 times greater risk of death from cancer, and 1.46 times greater risk of death from all causes compared to stronger men (7). The researchers suggest that men can reduce all causes of mortality by engaging in regular strength training involving the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body at least two or three times a week.

Research has also shown a link between grip strength and health. By using a hand-grip dynamometry to measure grip strength, researchers determined that lower grip strength was associated with higher risk of mortality, disability, health complications and prolonged length of stay in a hospital (8).

Strength Training Increases Bone Strength and Density

The skeletal system is responsible for providing support and structure to the body. As the body ages, bone mass and density decreases, resulting in a subsequent rise in bone fractures (9). The number of bone-related injuries in the United States is expected to reach 3 million annually by 2025 (10).

Strength training has been shown to halt the decline of bone density and even reverse it (11). For example, a study involving eight post-menopausal women suffering from osteoporosis who engaged in regular strength training had not only doubled their strength, but the bone mass in their lower vertebrae, neck and thighbone also increased (11).

After the age of 60, one in three women will experience a bone fracture as a result of declining bone health; some of these injuries may be fatal or result in significant loss of independence. One study shows that women aged 60 suffering from osteoporosis experienced a lower risk of falling as well as a reduced extent of injury when falls did occur as a result of regular strength training. Throughout the 8-month study, the Brisbane scientists found weight training to be an effective preventative measure against bone fractures in people suffering from osteoporosis:

Strength Training Reduces Pain And Injury in Muscles and Joints

People who engage in regular strength training experience less injuries in sports, recreation and daily life activities. For example, researchers determined that footballers who performed regular strength training had 3.5 times less injuries than those who did not engage in any strength training (12). The strength training protected the athletes against torn muscles and reduced the risk of ankle injuries. If a sport as rigorous as football can be made 3.5 times safer with strength training, then imagine the implications for the general population–especially the ageing population, who is more susceptible to hip fractures and other fall-related injuries (13).

Strength training has also been shown to cure mouse arm and tennis elbow, which affects people who work on the computer all day; the monotonous motions of typing on a keyboard and moving a mouse causes a repetitive strain injury that results in pain in the lower arm. Researchers discovered that strength training three times a week helps get rid of these problems (14). People suffering from mouse arm and tennis elbow who performed strength training doubled their strength in the exercises and a result, they experienced less strain in their muscles and joints.

Research shows that resistance training also relieves neck and shoulder pain (15). The researchers conclude that “as little as 2 minutes of daily progressive resistance training for 10 weeks results in clinically relevant reductions of pain and tenderness in healthy adults with frequent neck/shoulder symptoms.”

It is therefore evident that regular strength training protects the body from incidents that occur in daily life such as sprains and overuse injuries.

Strength Training Helps Alleviate Back Pain

Low back pain is the second most common cause of disability in the US (16), where an estimated 149 million days of work per year are lost due to the condition (17). Over 80 percent of the population will experience low back pain at some point in their lives (18), and many will experience frequent recurrences of low back pain throughout their lifetime. Many will also develop chronic back pain, which can be very disabling, affecting their quality of life (19).

Research shows that strength training can help alleviate back pain. Throughout a 16-week study lead by Jackson JK et al.(20), men suffering from chronic nonspecific low back pain who performed strength training experienced less pain and disability, and reported an improved quality of life.

Strength Training Improves Sleep

Those who are suffering from sleep problems can improve their sleep by performing strength training (21). Scientists at Appalachian State University discovered that strength training in the morning helps you fall asleep earlier at night, and strength training later in the day reduces the number of times you wake up at night.

“Those who do not regularly engage in aerobic exercise because of health or other limitations could improve their ability to maintain sleep and concomitantly limit the risk of developing adverse health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression, which have all been associated with poor or insufficient sleep, by incorporating resistance exercise into their weekly routines; this thus supports the role of exercise as an effective prophylactic health measure.”, researchers say.

Strength Training Improves Brain Function

Lifting weights makes you more intelligent, according to researchers at Sydney University (22). Their study suggests there is a correlation between increased muscle strength and cognitive function. The researchers studied a group of people aged 55 to 86 with mild cognitive impairment (a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease), who were asked to carry out a variety of activities involving weight lifting and cognitive training. The researchers discovered that the weight training significantly improved the participants’ cognition, whereas the cognitive training had no affect.

“The improvement in cognition function was related to their muscle strength gains. The stronger people became, the greater the benefit for their brain” said Dr Yorgi Mavros, a researcher of Sydney University. “The more we can get people doing resistance training like weightlifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier aging population.”

Strength Training Reduces Obesity

Obesity is characterized by an accumulation of excessive bodyfat. Obese individuals are at higher risk of morbidity and mortality, primarily from cardiovascular disease, but also from diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis, liver disease, kidney disease, sleep apnea, depression (23) and many other health conditions. It is estimated that by the year 2030, 38% of the world’s adult population will be overweight and another 20% obese (24).

Losing weight–or rather, losing body fat while maintaining/gaining lean body mass (muscle) results in lower risk of obesity-related health risks. Strength training has been shown to be an effective method of reducing bodyfat. For example, in a study lead by Shaw, I., et al. (25), 28 untrained overweight men who followed a weight training program 3 times a week for 8 weeks lost 3 kg/6.6 lbs of bodyfat while gaining 3kg/6.6 lbs of muscle compared to a non-exercise control group that experienced no change in body composition.

In another study (26), 10 women with normal weight obesity syndrome, also commonly known as skinny-fat syndrome (a condition where individuals appear to be skinny with normal body mass index, but with high body fat percentage, putting them at risk for cardiometabolic dysregulation and cardiovascular mortality), followed a circuit resistance training program (performing one strength training exercise after another with minimum rest between exercises) for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, the women had lost 8 kg of of body fat along with improved cardiovascular health–30% of whom lost 3 kg of fat around their midsection, compared to a control group of 13 women who did not experience such changes. The researchers concluded that circuit resistance training is a useful strategy for combating the normal weight obesity syndrome in women, resulting in improved health and body composition.

According to researchers at the University of Arizona, strength training can prevent weight gain in postmenopausal women (27). This is attributed to the extra calories burned during each workout, and also due to the effect of the built up muscle mass that is gained through strength training; each kg of gained muscle mass increases energy burning. The researchers summarize that “in light of the positive effects of resistance training on bone mass density, muscle function and lean mass, and its potential for contributing to the prevention of osteoporosis and debilitating fractures, resistance training for weight loss and maintenance is particularly attractive for overall chronic disease prevention in postmenopausal women.”

Strength Training Lowers Risk Of Diabetes

Diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases today. It is estimated that 422 million people in the world had diabetes in 2014, and this number is expected to double between the years 2000 and 2030 (28, 29).

According to a study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), men who weight train regularly for 30 minutes per day for five days, or 50 minutes 3 days a week can reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 34%. They can further reduce their risk by up to 59% if they combine weight training with aerobic exercise such as brisk walking or running (30).

“This study provides clear evidence that weight training has beneficial effects on diabetes risk over and above aerobic exercise, which are likely to be mediated through increased muscle mass and improved insulin sensitivity,” says research leader Frank Hu. “To achieve the best results for diabetes prevention, resistance training can be incorporated with aerobic exercise.”

It’s Never Too Late To Get Stronger

Although strength training is commonly practiced among the youth, the older population can benefit from lifting weights regardless of their age. For example, in a 12-week study (31), people over the age of 90 who performed strength training twice a week improved their strength, power and muscle mass, which was reflected in the increase in their walking speed, greater capacity to get up from their chairs, improved balance, significant reduction in the incidents of falls, and significant improvement in muscle power and muscle mass in their lower limbs.

Alan Lewis, for example, only started weightlifting at the age of 75. Now at the age of 84, Alan is a record holder and is one of the many seniors on his team whose quality of life has significantly improved as a result of strength training:

80-year-old woman Ernestine Shepherd only started training at the age of 71 and has become a record-holding bodybuilder:

Another prime example of elegant ageing through strength training is 71-year-old Dr Josefina Monasterio, who only started lifting weights at the age of 59:

“My muscles and my bones are healthy, stronger than when I was 20”, she says.

The above are just a few of the countless examples of the positive effects that strength training has on the older population.

Getting Started

Okay, so now you know how awesome strength training is. Now how do you go about it?

For the older population engaging in strength training for the first time, it is important to start off slowly to prevent injury. Researchers suggest that “appropriate and individualized training programs, the use of safe equipment, careful warming up and cooling down, correct range of motion, progressive intensity training, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness are essential aspects of injury prevention among the elderly” (32).

An example protocol can be seen in the study conducted by Jackson JK et al. (20), where participants followed a strength training program consisting of the leg press, leg extension, leg curl, bench press, incline bench press, lat pulldown, low cable row, dumbbell shoulder press, arm curl, triceps pushdown, ab crunches, swiss ball crunch, and prone superman. The subjects started off by training with machines and gradually progressed to the free weight exercises while also gradually increasing the weight, volume and intensity of the exercises over the period of the 16-week study (20).

Another example from a systematic review (33) concluded that strength training 1-6 times per week, at a volume of 1-3 sets of 6-15 repetitions and intensity of 30-70% 1RM was enough to produce significant improvements in muscle strength and muscle power, proving to be effective in combating frailty among the elderly.

Calisthenic exercises such as push-ups, squats, lunges, inverted rows, and pull-ups are also effective for those who do not have access to gym equipment. An example exercise routine would be a full-body workout involving the major muscle groups: legs, chest, back, shoulders and arms.

For younger and healthier trainees, a variety of strength training modalities exist; popular training programs include Starting Strength, 5×5, 5/3/1, WS4SB, and many others.

Conclusion

The benefits of having more muscle and strength extend far beyond the superficial. Bodybuilding, when viewed in the context of building the body up–or rather, re-building it through methodical exercise (strength training), one can halt the ageing process and prevent the onset of age-related diseases.

Although aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging have many benefits in regards to cardiovascular fitness, it is not sufficient enough to improve the musculoskeletal system; strength training not only improves health, but it also strengthens the muscles and the underlying structure of the body, which supports all of its other systems. The purpose of this article is not to convince the reader to avoid other forms of exercise in favor of strength training–but rather, to help understand the important roles that muscle mass and strength play in the overall picture of health and longevity. The healthiest and most effective exercise programs are ones that employ both aerobic and strength training. However, if one were to choose between the two, strength training would be the best option (34, 35).

The promotion of strength training will result in a more robust and healthier population, reducing health care costs (36). Including strength training in health-promotion programs will improve quality of life and increase life expectancy. As more research emerges, I predict that strength training will be clinically prescribed as part of treatment and prevention plans against acute and chronic health conditions and diseases.

References:

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Matthew Chan

Matthew is the founder, writer and chief editor of PhysicalCulturist.ca. He has over 10 years of strength training experience and has competed in bodybuilding and men's physique shows. Matthew is also currently in the process of acquiring his bachelor's in exercise science.

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