Strength training boosts health, fitness levels - by Chris Iliades, MD
If you knew that a certain type of exercise could benefit your heart, improve your balance, strengthen your bones, and help you lose weight all while making you look and feel better, wouldn't you want to get started? Well, studies show that strength training can provide all those benefits and more.
Strength training – also known as weight or resistance training – is physical activity designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a specific muscle or muscle group against external resistance, including free-weights, weight machines, or your own body weight, according to the definition from the American College of Sports Medicine.
"The basic principle is to apply a load and overload the muscle so it needs to adapt and get stronger," explains Neal Pire, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and the national director of wellness services at Castle Connolly Private Health Partners in New York City.
And what’s important for everyone to know is that strength training is not just about body builders lifting weights in a gym. Regular strength or resistance training also helps prevent the natural loss of lean muscle mass that comes with aging. That means it's an important part of your overall fitness and it benefits people of all ages, plus it may be particularly important for people with health issues such as obesity, arthritis, or a heart condition. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention physical activity guidelines recommend that adults do muscle-strengthening activities on at least two or more days each week (targeting the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).
Besides the well-touted (and frequently Instagrammed) benefit of adding tone and definition to your muscles, how does strength training help? Here are just a few of the many ways.
- Strength training makes you stronger and fitter.
This benefit is the obvious one, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. "Muscle strength is crucial in making it easier to do the things you need to do on a day-to-day basis," Pire says – especially as we get older and naturally start to lose muscle. Strength training is also called resistance training because it involves strengthening and toning your muscles by contracting them against a resisting force. There are two types of resistance training:
- Isometric resistance involves contracting your muscles against a nonmoving object, such as against the floor in a push-up.
- Isotonic strength training involves contracting your muscles through a range of motion as in weight lifting.
- Strength training protects bone health and muscle mass.
At around age 30 we start losing as much as 3 to 5 percent of lean muscle mass per year thanks to aging. According to a study published in October 2017 in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, just 30 minutes twice a week of high intensity resistance and impact training was shown to improve functional performance, as well as bone density, structure, and strength in postmenopausal women with low bone mass – and it had no negative effects.
- Strength training helps keep the weight off for good.
Aerobic exercise such as walking, running, and cycling is well known as a way to help increase the number of calories you burn in a day and shed extra pounds. But strength training helps, too (even if you’re not burning a huge number of calories during the workout). Exercise science researchers suspect strength training is helpful for weight loss because it helps increase your resting metabolism (meaning the rate at which your body burns calories when you’re just going about your day, not exercising).
A study published in the journal Obesity in November 2017 found that, compared with dieters who didn’t exercise and those who did only aerobic exercise, dieters who did strength training exercises four times a week for 18 months lost the most fat (about 18 pounds, compared with 10 pounds for nonexercisers and 16 pounds for aerobic exercisers).
- Strength training helps you develop better body mechanics.
Strength training also benefits your balance, coordination, and posture.(7) One study showed that in older people who are at higher risk of falling (and causing a lot of damage) because of worse physical functioning, strength training reduced risk of falling by 40 percent compared with individuals who did not do strength-training exercise.(8) "Balance is dependent on the strength of the muscles that keep you on your feet,” Pire notes. “The stronger those muscles, the better your balance."
- Strength training can help with chronic disease management.
Studies have documented the many wellness benefits of strength training, including helping people with some chronic diseases manage their conditions. If you have arthritis, strength training can be as effective as medication in decreasing arthritis pain.(9)
And for the 14 million Americans with type 2 diabetes, strength training along with other healthy lifestyle changes can help improve glucose control.(10)
- Strength training boosts energy levels and improves your mood.
Strength training will elevate your level of endorphins (natural opiates produced by the brain), which lift energy levels and improve mood.(11) As if that isn't enough to convince you, there’s evidence strength training may help you sleep better, too.(12)
- Strength training translates to more calories burned.
Strength training helps boost your metabolism (the rate your resting body burns calories throughout the day). But weight or resistance training can help boost your calorie burn during and after your workout, too. You burn calories during strength training, and your body continues to burn calories after strength training (just like you do after aerobic exercise), a process called "excess post-exercise oxygen consumption" or EPOC, according to the American Council on Exercise.(13) When you do strength, weight, or resistance training, your body demands more energy based on how much energy you’re exerting (meaning the tougher you’re working, the more energy is demanded). That means more calories burned during the workout, and more calories burned after the workout, too, while your body is recovering to a resting state.
Getting Started: How to Add Strength Training to Your Routine
If you’re looking to add strength or resistance training to your routine you have a lot of options, Pire notes. You definitely don’t need a gym membership or expensive weight machines, he adds. "Squatting on a chair at home, push-ups, planks, or other movements that require you to use your own body weight as resistance be very effective."
If you have any health issues, ask your doctor what type of strength training is best to meet your needs and abilities. You can also work with a fitness expert to design a strength-training program that will be safe and effective for you.
Who doesn't want to look better, feel better, and live a longer, healthier life? So what are you waiting for? Get started now with a complete workout program that includes strength training.