Strength training can prevent you from dying prematurely.

If you haven’t already started exercising routinely you should. Numerous studies have shown that physical activity can prevent deaths caused by cancer, COPD, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, smoking, and obesity. Exercising regularly is, aside from quitting smoking, one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health. The benefits of exercise are also seen in older adults who exercise regularly. Most of the research to date on the benefits of physical activity has been done on aerobic exercise, for example running or biking. Recently, the benefits of strength training have also started to be highlighted. This research has focused on the ability of strength training (weight lifting) to help older patients regain strength and muscle mass that they may have lost due to age or disease. New results now published in the journal Preventative Medicine suggests that the benefits of strength training go beyond just increasing strength or muscle mass.

The study by a group out of Pennsylvania collected information from a database on 30,000 adults over the age of 65 who had completed a health questionnaire on their physical activity. Participants were asked the following question:

“How often do you do leisure-time physical activities specifically designed to strengthen your muscles, such as lifting weight or doing calisthenics?”

Patients were grouped according to the frequency of their activity, those who did strength training 2 or more times a week and those who did it less than 2 times a week (once or never). Only 9% of the population in the study actually completed 2 or more training sessions a week which is the current recommendation by the American College of Sports Medicine. The researchers then followed these patients for 15 years and recorded how many died and due to what causes. Once they controlled for certain variables like age, gender, and overall health at the time of enrolment, the data showed some interesting things.

  • People who did strength training 2 or more times a week were 46% less likely to die at all, 17% less likely to die of cancer, and 28% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than people who didn’t strength train more than 1 time a week.
  • In addition, people who did strength training 2+ days a week were 19% less likely to die from any cause than people who didn’t strength train more than 1 time a week even after controlling for things like smoking, body weight, and other conditions (like diabetes) that are known to affect mortality.

This study seems to suggest that mixing up your exercise routine to include cardio and strength training may be the best way to improve your chance of living a longer, healthier life. It is important to note a few limitations of the study. First, this is a cohort study where they select a group of people and observe them for some phenomenon. As such, it makes it difficult to say if the results shown here are cause and effect. To find cause and effect you would need a randomized control trial where some people work out and some people don’t and you measure some function of overall health, probably not death. Second, the data on strength training is from self reported values and so are prone to errors such as overestimation. Future experiments using technology that can closely monitor strength training activities could improve the results. Until then, it is likely a safe bet that any form of exercise will help increase your overall health and it is never too late to start. Find a sport, go to the gym, swim, or just go for a walk with the dog.

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