What are the hidden health benefits of strength training?

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published August 27, 2019

Key Takeaways

Strength training—also called weight training or resistance training—isn’t just good for your muscles. It provides a multitude of benefits for your whole body, including improved heart health and balance, stronger bones, weight loss, and improved mental well-being.

Using external resistance in the form of free-weights, weight machines, resistance bands, and even your own body weight, strength training exercises apply a load/overload to a specific muscle or muscle group, and force the muscles to adapt and grow stronger.  

And, for those who are aging—and, let’s be honest, who isn’t?—regular strength training can help prevent sarcopenia, the gradual and natural loss of lean muscle mass.

In its new Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends strength training for all ages. For children/adolescents 6 to 17 years old, HHS recommends strength training be incorporated into their recommendation for 60 minutes of physical activity daily, at least 3 days/week. In adults, moderate-to-intense strength training that targets all muscle groups is recommended 2 days/week.

Besides providing cardiovascular benefits and preserving muscle mass, as all exercise does, strength training can provide surprisingly broad health benefits. Let’s take a look.

Burns more calories. Because it boosts your metabolism, strength training burns calories. But even after wrapping up your strength-training workout, did you know that it contributes to something known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)—more commonly known as “afterburn”? As your body recovers from your workout and moves back to a resting state, it will keep burning more calories because of your workout. The more intense your workout, the longer it takes for your body to return to resting state, and the more calories you will burn.

Boosts energy and mood. Like all exercise, strength training raises your circulating levels of endorphins, which serve to improve not only your mood, but gives you an increase in your energy level as well.  

Reduces anxiety. Researchers have documented the anxiolytic effects of resistance training as well, with low-to-moderate intensity training (less than 70% of one repetition maximum) effecting the most consistent and largest decreases in anxiety.

They concluded: “Importantly, anxiolytic effects have been observed across a diverse range of populations and dependent measures. These findings provide support for the use of resistance exercise in the clinical management of anxiety.”

Improves sleep. In a study involving elderly men aged 65 to 80 years, resistance training changed sleep patterns for the better, via less awakening and deeper sleep in those who took part in just a single training session at 60% of one repetition maximum.

Improves diabetes. High-intensity resistance training improved glycemic control and muscle strength in elderly patients with type 2 diabetes (mean age: 66 years), according to researchers of a meta-analysis/review of 10 clinical trials. Resistance training brought about significant reduction in HbA1c (0.50%), and led to a 38% increase in muscular strength, they found.

“…Decreased muscle mass compromises glycemic control as skeletal muscle plays an important role in glucose clearance from blood vessels and storage. Moreover, muscular strength and muscle mass decrease with aging, so that it is important for diabetic patients, especially diabetic elders, to increase both their muscular strength and muscle mass through [resistance training], in particular high-intensity training,” they concluded.

Protects bone health. High-intensity resistance and impact training can improve bone density, structure, and strength, as well as functional performance in postmenopausal women with low bone mass, according to results from the LIFTMORE study, published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. And these results were seen over 8 months of twice-weekly, 30-minute exercise sessions. Significant improvements were seen in lumbar spine and femoral neck bone mineral density, as well as in femoral neck cortical thickness and height in women randomized to the high-intensity, supervised training compared with control participants who completed a home-based, low-intensity exercise program. Further, participant compliance was high, and only one adverse event was reported (a minor lower back spasm).

Lowers colon cancer risk. To study the effects of weightlifting on future risk of developing 10 different types of cancer, researchers surveyed and followed over 215,000 adults for 6-7 years. According to their  study findings, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, those who lifted weights every week had a 22% to 25% lower risk of colon cancer compared with those who did not lift weights, as well as a modest reduction in the risk of kidney cancer.

How to start

Incorporating strength training into your weekly workout or routine couldn’t be easier. You don’t need a gym or expensive weights. Push-ups, planks, squatting on a chair or any other exercise that uses your own body weight as resistance will do. And simple moves, with simple equipment like dumbbells, a kettle bell, or resistance bands make for a great strength training session.

Choose weights or resistance levels that are heavy enough to tire whatever muscles you are working after about 12-15 repetitions. You will gradually be able to do more repetitions without tiring, and that’s the time to gradually increase the weight or the resistance.

For most people, single sets of 12-15 reps will be enough to build muscle, and are as effective as three full sets of the same movement without weights. Remember, the goal shouldn’t be a whole hour of strength training. Shoot for 20- to 30-minute sessions, 2-3 times weekly. You will see noticeable improvements in your strength.

And be sure to rest for 1 full day between strength training each muscle group to give your muscles time to recover. Also, if a movement causes you pain, stop immediately. Either go to a lower weight or try it again in a few days. Don’t push yourself, as you may put yourself at risk for an exercise-induced injury.

For a great collection of strength training videos, go to the following link on the Mayo Clinic website: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/strength-training/art-20046031

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