When you think of exercising to improve your health, you might think of running on a treadmill, taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood or sweating it out in a Zumba class.
Those activities are all largely aerobic. They strengthen your heart so it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood. They also improve your lung function. Both of those benefits mean greater stamina and a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.
But if aerobic activity is the only kind of workout you do, you might be missing out on a key component of fitness: strength training.
“Strength training has benefits that aerobic exercise alone normally does not provide,” says Duck-chul Lee, PhD, an associate professor at Iowa State University.
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The benefits of strength training
When you put stress on your muscles using dumbbells, weight machines, resistance bands or even your own body weight, you encourage your muscles to become stronger than they were before.
That added strength can help make everyday tasks easier. Taking the groceries out of the car? No problem. Shoveling snow? Still hard, but definitely not as taxing.
Another huge benefit of that added muscle: It raises your basal metabolic rate — the number of calories your body burns for basic functions, says Lee. That can make it easier to lose or maintain your weight.
But a toned physique is far from the only benefit you’ll reap.
You’ll have stronger bones
As we age, we start to lose muscle mass and our bones get frailer. But the tugging and pushing on your bones that happens during strength training can nudge bone-forming cells into action, according to Harvard Health. The result: a stronger, denser skeleton.
Strength training can even reverse some of the damage from osteoporosis. This is according to a study in the Journal of Family and Community Medicine. After 12 weeks of strength training with squats, older adults with osteoporosis increased the amount of bone mineral density in their lower spine by 2.9%, and by 4.9% in their thigh bone.
You’ll have less pain
With stronger muscles, you’ll be able to achieve better balance (reducing the risk of falling) and improve chronic pain.
For example, strengthening your core muscles can prevent or ease chronic back pain. That’s key, since 4 in 5 Americans will suffer from lower back pain at some point in their lives, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
(Do you have chronic pain? Here’s what you need to know about over-the-counter pain relievers.)
You’ll lower your risk of chronic conditions
Lee coauthored a study in 2019 that found that even an hour or less of lifting weights each week could reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by as much as 40% to 70%. Another study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that people with stronger muscles were 32% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Building muscle can help your body burn more fat and lower your BMI, which can reduce your risk of heart disease. Plus, muscles are quick to help absorb excess glucose (or sugar) from your blood. And this can help keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range.
You’ll boost your brain health
The brain isn’t a muscle. But it sure benefits from strength training. One review of studies in JAMA Psychiatry found that weight-bearing exercise helped reduce depressive symptoms.
And another study in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society found that older adults who did weight training twice a week for 6 months significantly improved their scores on cognitive tests over those who just did stretching exercises.
How to get started
Even if you’ve never lifted a weight in your life, it’s never too late to catch up on these benefits.
In fact, studies at the University of Alabama found that women in their 60s and 70s who took part in a supervised weight-training program developed muscles that were as large and as strong as a typical 40-year-old’s.
Strength training doesn’t have to mean lifting barbells at the gym. There are several ways to give your muscles a workout, including:
- Resistance exercises using weights and weight machines
- Using resistance bands and straps
- Heavy gardening (digging, lifting, carrying)
- Body weight exercises (pushups, planks, pullups, lunges, squats)
- Some Pilates, tai chi or yoga poses, such as warrior pose
Once you’re ready to begin, follow these tips to stay safe:
- Always warm up before you exercise; cold muscles are easier to injure. Get your muscles and joints ready by walking for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Start with light weights to reduce muscle soreness, Lee says.
- Try to do 12 to 15 repetitions of the same exercise.
- To learn proper form, work with a trainer or follow along on an exercise video.
- Remember to allow at least 1 or 2 days of rest between strength-training sessions so your muscles can recover.
- It’s normal to feel sore after lifting weights. But if something really hurts, stop what you’re doing right away.
Aim to do at least 2 muscle-strengthening activities each week. As you get stronger and the exercises get easier, you can vary your routine, says Lee. You can exercise different muscles or use heavier weights to improve your strength and your health.
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Heart attack and stroke risk: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (2019). “Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality”
Weight training and osteoporosis: Journal of Family Community Medicine (2014). “The impact of adding weight-bearing exercise versus nonweight-bearing programs to the medical treatment of elderly patients with osteoporosis”
Overview of strength training benefits: Mayo Clinic
Study comparing strength to being diagnosed with diabetes: Mayo Clinic Proceedings (2019). “Association of muscular strength and incidence of type 2 diabetes”
Mental health benefits: JAMA Psychiatry (2018). “Association of efficacy of resistance exercise training with depressive symptoms”
Cognitive benefits: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2016). “Mediation of cognitive function improvements by strength gains after resistance training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment”
University of Alabama studies: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (2011). “Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults”