by Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C
Gone are the days when lifting weights was reserved for bodybuilders or pro-athletes. In fact, the new Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends all adults include at least two muscle-strengthening workouts per week.
For good reason—strength training affects virtually every organ system in the body, profoundly impacting longevity and quality of life. What if you could do one thing to improve your health?
Here are five reasons why strength training should be at the top of your list.
1. Live a Longer, Fulfilling Life
Strength training can help you live longer. Muscle strength is an independent and strong predictor of all-cause mortality, meaning regardless of your age or other factors impacting your health, higher levels of strength are associated with lower risk of death. A meta-analysis of over two million healthy adults showed this association equated to a 14-percent lower risk of all causes of death.
Strength training also improves your functional movement quality, so everyday activities (think: climbing stairs or carrying heavy groceries) feel easier and you’re more apt to stay physically active. According to leading health experts, muscle strength translates to better quality of life in your later years and more time living independently.
2. Improve Metabolic Health
There are tons of fad diets and programs out there that advertise “how to speed up your metabolism,” but metabolic health comes down to how your body uses the energy (food) you consume. The more efficient you are at metabolizing carbohydrates and fats, the less likely you are to develop chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. That’s where muscle comes in.
One of the signs of poor metabolic health is high levels of visceral fat—the body fat that sits around your midsection. Increasing your muscle mass helps to reduce visceral fat, in part by targeting chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is characterized by a steady, low-level fight or flight mode. While fat tissue (particularly visceral fat) secretes pro-inflammatory cytokines that promote this unhealthy inflammation, muscle cells secrete health-promoting anti-inflammatory cells that may also help to reduce the size of fat cells.
One of the domino effects of this boost in metabolic health is blood sugar. Strength training has a powerful effect on insulin sensitivity, making it easier for your body tissues to pick up and use circulating glucose. In turn, your blood sugar lowers in the process and you’re able to adapt more readily to your energy needs, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Building up your muscle mass goes beyond aesthetics—it will have a lasting impact on your metabolic and cardiovascular health.
3. Manage Weight and Body Composition
If you’re on a weight loss journey or have recently lost weight, strength training may positively impact your progress. Building and maintaining muscle not only reduces visceral fat, but research also shows it helps to improve body composition, decreasing rates of obesity.
When you’re in a calorie deficit, it’s easy to start losing muscle mass. If you can maintain your muscle, you start to slowly see the scales tip in the other direction—losing body fat. This finding is further supported in a meta-analysis where researchers found in 54 studies of over 11,000 participants, resistance training reduced body fat percentage, body fat mass, and visceral fat. Say goodbye to hours working away on an elliptical—while cardio has its own unique benefits, resistance training or a hybrid approach can give you an edge when tackling weight management.
4. Fight Off Infections
You don’t normally associate a dumbbell workout with fighting off the common cold, but building muscle mass can in fact, improve your immunity. In recent studies researchers found muscle mass and strength correlated to lower severity of Covid-19 and shorter hospital stays. Similar findings in patients with cancer show that having more muscle mass may help to build resilience against cachexia (muscle atrophy) and the harsh side effects of chemotherapy, even improving survival rates in some cancers.
In cases of illness, muscle acts as a buffer. Muscle tissue is made up of a pool of amino acids, a storage form of protein, which the body can lend in the healing of other tissues when you’re fighting infection. The more muscle you have to start when you come down with an illness, the more prepared your body is to fight it off.
5. Reduce Risk of Injury
Strengthening the muscles and tendons around the joints means extra protection from potential chronic overuse and even acute injuries, according to this meta-analysis. When you build strength, you see gains in balance, flexibility, and coordination—keeping you nimble on your feet so you’re more resilient to injury.
As you age, your bone density diminishes, putting you at risk of breaking a bone. You can stave off this bone density loss, known as osteoporosis, with strength training. Bones adapt to the stress placed on them, and when you add load through lifting weights, it stimulates the bone tissue to remodel and grow. Similarly, strength training can alleviate feelings of pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis, which further adds to your well-being.
The bottom line: Strength training is a powerful tool for longevity that can improve metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune health, facilitate weight management and body composition and ultimately, enhance your quality of life and vitality. And it’s never too late to start. Research shows older adults can increase their strength anywhere from 25 to over 100 percent after starting regular strength training. Adding just two workouts per week could lead to more thriving years down the road.