September 8, 2022 – People who lift weights understand they are playing a long game.
Once you get past the “rookie gains” – the rapid and exciting increases in muscle strength and size – it takes time, effort and patience to keep making progress.
Whether they know it or not, they play them too longevity Game.
A growing body of research shows that resistance training adds years to both lifespan and “health span”—the period of life when we are in good health.
A 2022 study report by Japanese researchers linked “muscle-strengthening activity” to a 15% reduced risk of dying from any cause during the period covered in the report.
Resistance training was also associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (17%), cancer (12%) and diabetes (17%).
We have long known that strength is an excellent predictor of future health. Much research has shown that, all else being equal, stronger men and women have a much lower risk of dying during any given period than people with less strength.
This new research shows that strength training offers similar protection, regardless of the results of that training. So even if you think you’re not getting as strong or as lean as you’d like to be, keep going – chances are you’re still helping your health in a big way.
How strength training helps in old age
Strength training appears to be particularly effective for older adults for longevity, says Professor Dr. Roger Fielding of Tufts University, who has been studying the role of exercise in aging since the early 1990s.
“As we age, we see significant deficits in muscle function and bone health,” he says. “All of this can be slowed down, toned down, or reversed with practice.”
His concept of “appropriate” has changed a lot in the last 3 decades. “When I first started studying this stuff, we tried to give people a very formalized recipe for strength training,” he says.
This strength training recipe typically involved high sets (three per exercise), moderate reps (eight to 12 per set), and relatively heavy weights. It also required professional supervision in a well-equipped gym, which was both unattractive and impractical for most audiences.
“What I’ve learned is that even lower-intensity strength training at home without a lot of specialty equipment has some benefits,” he says.
What advantages? That’s harder to say.
The research linking resistance exercise to lower mortality comes from large, population-wide surveys that have examined tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. The broad category of “muscle strengthening exercises” can include anything from calisthenics in the living room to a serious bodybuilding or powerlifting regimen.
They are also based on self-declarations by the persons examined. Because of this, “we should be careful about how we interpret some of these studies,” says Fielding.
How much strength training should you do?
That warning seems particularly appropriate for the study’s most surprising conclusion: The maximum longevity benefit comes from one or two resistance exercises per week totaling 30 to 60 minutes.
The study adds that it’s unclear why more strength training would have diminishing or even negative outcomes.
Robert Linkul, owner of Training the Older Adult in Shingle Springs, CA, thinks the answer is perfectly clear.
“Less might be more for the beginner,” he says. That’s why his new clients typically start out with two 50-minute workouts per week. But after 3 months they need to train 3 times a week to keep seeing progress.
He currently has 14 clients who have been with him for at least 16 years. Most of them started in their 50’s and are now in their 60’s or 70’s. If there was a downside to training more than twice a week, he’s pretty sure he’d have seen it by now.
Live longer and move longer
Linkul says there’s a lot more to his training regimen than just weightlifting. Clients begin each workout with 10-15 minutes of mobility and warm-up exercises. This is followed by 15 minutes of strength training and 15 minutes of high-intensity resistance training (HIRT).
HIRT uses functional exercises – lifting and carrying dumbbells or kettlebells; push or pull a weight sled – to improve strength and endurance at the same time.
“Most of the clients I get are training for real-life function,” says Linkul.
Falls are one of their biggest concerns, and for good reason: according to the World Health Organization, it’s the second leading cause of accidental injury-related deaths worldwide, only after traffic accidents.
Their other major concern is the loss of independence that often follows a fall. “They want to feel like they’re not around, using a cane or a walker, or being stuck in a wheelchair,” he says. “The more we train, the further we get away with it.”
According to a 2019 study by researchers at McMaster University, this is where strength training offers its most unique benefits. Resistance training is “particularly effective for maintaining mobility in older adults,” the study states.
training for life
Traditional aerobic exercise offers many of the same benefits, including increased longevity and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.
But there is no need to choose one or the other. As a recent study found, combining aerobic and strength exercise results in a lower risk of early death than doing both separately.
Which makes perfect sense to Fielding.
“Usually people who are active in sports don’t just train alone,” he says. “Some exercise is better than no exercise,” and more is usually better than less. “People need to find things they enjoy doing and want to do and can do consistently.”