You nail down the target, don’t get out of breath on the stairs and are pretty confident that if necessary, you could run to catch a bus. But it is still possible that you may be missing a critical aspect of your health and fitness.
Weight training, once considered an optional extra, should be at least as important as aerobic exercise, according to a growing body of research. This can include anything from lifting weights to carrying heavy groceries. Muscle-straining activities like these have been shown to have benefits beyond aerobic exercise – and are important for middle-aged weight management.
In a study published in June, Iowa State University researchers looked at the records of 12,000 mostly middle-aged adults and found that two or more workouts a week were enough to reduce the risk of obesity by 20 to 30 percent for two decades, including people who do not do aerobic exercise. Increasing it to an hour or two per week was even more effective, reducing the risk of obesity by 30-40 percent. Other bonus effects are reduced cholesterol levels, inflammation and blood pressure, as well as a reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Muscle strength has been linked to longer lives, lower risk of obesity, and healthier brain, bones, and cardiovascular systems. It has also been shown to improve self-esteem, boost self-confidence, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
But there are signs that people who exercise regularly are also neglecting their strength. “At the population level, around 60 percent do not do strength training. That’s almost double those who don’t do aerobic exercise, ”says Jason Bennie, an exercise epidemiologist at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia.
The benefits of adding starch to the mixture can be significant. According to a recent analysis, regardless of their age or how much aerobics they did, people who did muscle-strengthening exercise regularly were 21 percent less likely to die of any reason over the next decade.
The reasons for this are complex, but it seems to boil down to giving the body something constructive with its excess calories. Challenging the body to lift weights stimulates the body to maintain the muscle capacity it already has and to add more when needed. The energy for this can come from stored fat or sugar or from additional calories that are ingested through food. The process of building and repairing continues long after the workout is finished, with muscles burning calories for up to 24 hours.
Once new muscle is in place, it is the metabolic gift that always passes on. Muscles are packed with mitochondria, the factory-like parts of the cell that convert glucose into energy. Having more muscles on board means the body has more factories to run and so burns more calories even when at rest.
These benefits extend to the brain as well. A higher overall strength is associated with better performance on tests of cognitive skills such as memory and decision-making. It also seems to keep the brain healthy longer.
As with other forms of exercise, this is likely due to a mix of better blood circulation and an increase in maintenance and repair, thanks to the release of various growth factors that add new neurons and connections in the brain. However, something else can happen that is particularly relevant to the meaning of weights.
When we put stress on our bones, they release a hormone called osteocalcin into the blood, where it travels to the brain and connects to the hippocampus, a key region of the brain responsible for memory.
Few studies have been done so far, but studies suggest that osteocalcin is actually important for memory, especially in old age. From middle age onwards, osteocalcin levels begin to drop, which makes weight training all the more important to protect the brain.
Osteocalcin deficiency has also been linked to anxiety in animal studies – and resistance exercises have been shown to be particularly effective at relieving depression and anxiety, and increasing self-esteem.
As early as the late 1980s, studies suggested that increasing physical strength could have implications for mental health. For example, a group of teenage girls who trained weights to increase their strength by 40 percent over 12 weeks reported that they felt stronger not only physically but mentally, had more confidence in tricky social situations or arguments, and more Trust in their “general” had effectiveness in life “. Other studies suggest that while the same is true of aerobic fitness, strength training appears to have an advantage, at least in the short term.
It’s not exactly clear why this should be, and osteocalcin almost certainly isn’t the whole story. One idea is that our brain makes a call about what we can process based not only on what is in our heads but also based on an unconscious sense of what our body is capable of. Getting stronger provides a basic level of confidence in your abilities that makes life so much more doable.
Overall, the clear message from research is that at every stage of life, no matter how fit you are, some resistance training pays off. In young people, it’s important not only for building confidence, but also for building strong bones and muscles as an insurance in case both lose weight from middle age. From then on it is a matter of preserving the existing for as long as possible.
“We all lose muscle mass and strength as we age, and it’s so much easier to maintain than to increase it,” says Tessa Strain, an exercise epidemiologist at Cambridge University. A certain amount of strength is crucial in order to be able to live independently longer, she adds – such as the strength of the legs to get out of a chair. “There comes a point where it doesn’t matter how fit you are. There is a level of strength that we all need to function in life. “
Current UK guidelines, updated in 2019, recommend weight training at least twice a week in addition to (or as part of) the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise.
This doesn’t have to mean lifting weights in the gym. Heavy gardening, shopping, hiking and swimming promote physical strength, as do sports such as cycling, tennis and climbing. Sitting on the floor more often is also a great way to increase leg strength as you will have to get up at some point. Strain suggests that the most important thing is to exercise all of the major muscle groups – legs, arms, torso, chest, and back. An easy way to ensure that you are achieving all of these goals is with bodyweight exercises like pushups, squats, and lunges. There are tons of options online including chair exercises for the less mobile, and the NHS website has a number of 10-minute bodyweight exercises that can be done at home. The NHS recommends doing strength exercises “to the point where you need a short break before repeating the activity”.
Ideally, says Strain, we should combine aerobic exercise with resistance exercises for the best results possible. But even those who hate rushing around and getting out of breath should still prioritize building strength. In short: raise when in doubt.
Caroline Williams is the author of Move! The new science of Body Over Mind