Do you remember being told that cardio is the way to go if you want to live a healthy life? While cardio exercise certainly has its benefits, research is now pointing to a surprising new contender: strength training. It has come a long way from being viewed as just a way to build muscle mass and aesthetics. Research is now showing that strength training is crucial for overall health and longevity.
What is Strength Training?
Strength training is defined as exercise that increases muscle strength by making your muscles work against a weight or force (such as gravity). And if you’re still skeptical, take note that it was added to the 2010 Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health.
In fact, a recent meta-analysis that combined data from 16 studies and over 1.5 million subjects showed that muscle-strengthening activities were associated with a 20% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, lung cancer, and all-cause mortality.
The Benefits of Strength Training
Strength training confers a host of health benefits that are independent of aerobic exercise, says Daniel J. McDonough, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. Here are just a few of the ways strength training can improve your health:
Improved Physical Fitness
Adding some muscle to your body not only makes you stronger but can also improve your overall physical fitness and bone mineral density.
Reduced Risk of Musculoskeletal Injury
Strength training can help reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury.
Better Control of Blood Sugar
Studies have found that strength training improves the body’s response to insulin, leading to better control of blood sugar after meals and a reduced risk of diabetes or insulin resistance.
Improved Cardiometabolic Health
Emerging evidence shows that contracting skeletal muscles produce myokines, which can help regulate various metabolic processes conducive to better cardiometabolic health.
Slowed Loss of Muscle Mass
Aging and inactivity can reduce muscle mass, but resistance training can help slow this natural loss of muscle mass with age. This is crucial to maintaining independence and reducing the risk of chronic disease from disability and inactivity.
Improved Brain Health and Function
Strength training has also been shown to have positive effects on brain health and function, potentially decreasing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Lower Risk of Bowel Cancer
Physical activity promotes the cancer-fighting protein interleukin-6 (IL-6) to be released into the bloodstream, which aids in the repair of damaged cells’ DNA, according to Newcastle University researchers.
The findings, which were published in the International Journal of Cancer, shed new light on the role of moderate activity in the fight against cancer and could aid in the development of future treatments.
How Much Strength Training is Enough?
So, now that you know the benefits of strength training, you might be wondering how much you need to do to see results. The federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends two or more strength-training sessions each week, with each session including four to six different exercises that use as many muscle groups as possible. For each exercise, aim to complete 10 to 12 repetitions two to three times.
According to McDonough, “just 1-3 hours per week of moderate exercise — brisk walking and/or vigorous aerobic exercise such as [high-intensity interval training] and just 1-2 times per week of strength exercise substantially reduced the risk of death by all-causes.” So, whether you’re using gravity, hand weights, resistance bands, or even just water bottles or cans from your cupboard, there’s no excuse not to add some strength training to your routine.
The Verdict: Cardio or Weights or Both?
So, should you choose cardio or weights or both? The answer, according to experts, is both. The greatest health benefits, whether it’s reduced risk of death, improved chronic disease risk factors, or improved general cognitive performance, have been seen in people who perform both types of exercise.
In conclusion, strength training should not be overlooked in favor of aerobic exercise. While aerobic exercise is still essential for heart and blood vessel health, strength training is crucial for improving overall muscle mass, bone density, reducing the risk of musculoskeletal injury, improving insulin sensitivity and reducing the risk of diabetes, promoting cardiometabolic health and protecting brain health.
Based on the current recommendations, doing two strength-training sessions a week, in addition to moderate aerobic exercise, is the best way to reap the health benefits. Strength training can be done using a variety of resistance options and doesn’t necessarily have to be performed at the gym. By combining both aerobic and strength training, you’ll maximize the benefits for both your heart and muscles and can live a longer, healthier life.
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.