Can weightlifting lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer?

By Jules Murtha | Medically reviewed by Jeffrey A. Bubis, DO, FACOI, FACP
Published November 17, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers found that weightlifting among older adults was associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, as well as death associated with cardiovascular disease.

  • Studies show that weight training may significantly cut down the risk of colon cancer in patients. Additional data point to the possibility that it may also reduce risk of kidney cancer.

  • Older adult patients who implement strength training into their routines may benefit from moving mindfully, finding ways to make it fun, and setting realistic goals for themselves to sustain this practice.

Strength training—specifically, weightlifting—may help patients reduce the risk of all-cause mortality and potentially some cancers, research shows.

Physicians can help older adult patients maintain a strength training practice by reminding them to move mindfully, make it enjoyable, and set goals that make sense for them.

Little-known health benefits

The benefits of aerobic exercise aren’t new to researchers or healthcare professionals (HCPs). Between reducing the risk of various cancers and improving cognitive function, aerobic exercise is a known tool to help patients stay physically fit, as reported in a review published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.[]

Related: The workout that de-ages your brain

And like aerobic exercise, muscle-strengthening exercises are highly recommended by HCPs, as reported in Neurology.[]

But what impact could lifting weights have on mortality risks?

A study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2022 suggested that weightlifting has the potential to reduce the risk of mortality in a couple of ways.[]

It looked at a sample size of 99,713 adults who participated in a follow-up questionnaire that assessed their weight-training habits. Researchers documented the participants' associated health outcomes through 2016 to determine mortality rates.

After adjusting for aerobic moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA), lifting weights was associated with a 9% lower risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality.

Participants who didn’t report weight training but did meet aerobic MVPA recommendations had a 32% lower all-cause mortality risk. Meanwhile, those who reported lifting weights 1–2 times per week on top of meeting MVPA recommendations had a 41% lower risk compared with those who reported neither.

Researchers found little association between lifting weights and a reduced risk of cancer-related mortality. It should be noted, however, that improvement in patients’ performance status scores (which may be related to weight training) are associated with improved outcomes in cancer patients, according to research published in UpToDate.[]

Other studies offer additional insights on weight training and cancer-related risks.

Can weight training lower risk of cancer?

Even though weight training may not reduce the risk of death from cancer, it may reduce the risk of developing it.

Authors of the retrospective review of databases published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise wrote that compared with participants who didn’t lift weights at all, those who did were at a significantly lower risk of developing colon cancer (Ptrend = 0.003).

Researchers found a similar association with weight training and reduced risk of kidney cancer. After adjusting for MVPA, however, this risk became statistically insignificant and requires further research.

Strength training tips for older adults

Weight training may reduce colon and potentially kidney cancer, as well as all-cause and CVD mortality. And according to an article published by the National Institute on Aging, strength training at large has several benefits for older adults.[]

The question for physicians, then, is: How can you encourage older adult patients to do it regularly?

The National Institute on Aging article provided a few tips you can relay to patients to help them maintain a strength training practice:

  1. Be mindful of movement. Patients with low bone density and muscle strength are more susceptible to falling and suffering fractures. A safer option for them may be to practice yoga or tai chi—both of which intersect balance and mindfulness with strength training.

  2. Set attainable goals. Whether patients prefer to move solitarily or in a class setting, encourage them to set realistic goals for themselves. This could look like dedicating 150 minutes per week to weight training or moving twice a week without a time requirement.

  3. Have fun! Patients can learn to center their joy in their strength-training pursuits. Perhaps they’d prefer dancing or riding a bike to working with weights. Whatever their method, moving some is ultimately better than not moving at all.

What this means for you

In addition to aerobic exercise, weightlifting can improve the health and well-being of older adults by cutting down the risk of all-cause and CVD mortality. Research indicates it may lower their risk for colon cancer. Help older adult patients stay on top of their strength-training practice by reminding them to make it a fun part of their routine, and to set attainable goals.

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