When we think of the habits that contribute to a long and healthy life, what do we think of? Avoiding recreational drugs, alcohol and smoking, of course. Also consuming a varied and well-balanced diet. And finally? Staying active.
Staying active calls to mind a wide range of lifestyle choices -- everything from just getting off the couch and going for a walk to engaging in a regular regimen of aerobic exercise. We are not the only people who make this common-sense connection. Scientists do it too.
That's why there is considerable scientific evidence that points to a connection between higher levels of aerobic exercise, overall wellness and greater longevity. The studies carried out by researchers tend to enlist exactly who you would expect as test subjects -- endurance athletes, runners, bicyclists, swimmers, etc. A somewhat recent meta-analysis of life expectancy studies published in the Journal of Aging Research (1 Reimers, et al) rounded up all the usual subjects. Studies summarized in the extensive review of existing literature found that long distance runners and cross-country skiers might expect +5.7 years of longevity, elite cyclists a rather impressive +8 years. You get the idea.
But what about those people who engage in regular strength training? Those men and women who hit the gym two or more times a week and do battle against the iron in order to build muscle? How do they fare in the increased life expectancy sweepstakes?
Here the evidence is not nearly as extensive, and there's a good reason for that. While people middle-aged or older are willing to get out and walk or even run or swim, strength training just isn't as common a pastime among this cohort. Indeed, random sampling by the CDC suggests that more than 40% of older Americans get some kind of aerobic exercise on a regular basis, while 10% or less report participating in any kind of strength training at all. So the data is lacking.
Two recent scientific studies, both published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine this year, are intended to close that research gap, and they have generated some pretty compelling results.
Combining Cardio Exercise AND Strength Training Supports Increased Longevity
A study published last month (Aug 2022) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine utilized National Health Interview Survey data (1997–2014) and the National Death Index through 2015 to produce a cohort of 416,420 US adults indexed for self-reported moderate aerobic physical activity (MPA), vigorous aerobic physical activity (VPA) and muscle strengthening exercise MSE, collated with mortality risk.
After adjusting for mitigating factors such as age, gender and chronic conditions, the researchers found that people who engaged in one hour of aerobic activity per week had a 15 percent lower mortality risk. Mortality risk was 27 percent lower for those who did three hours a week. These findings were consistent with those in numerous other studies linking aerobic exercise with reduced risk of mortality. (Note, too, the relatively short durations of weekly exercise and the benefits accrued from them!)
Because the study sample size was so large, however, the researchers were able to investigate further. Twenty-four percent of the study cohort reported engaging in regular strength training (the MSE group). Of those who took part in one to two strength-training sessions per week, risk of mortality was reduced a full 40% compared to those who didn’t exercise at all. (Again, just one or two strength-training sessions a week!)
Better Health Outcomes Linked to Strength Training
Earlier in the year (Feb 2022) another paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine also shed light on the wellness benefits of resistance training. In this study, a systemic review and meta-analysis of 16 clinical studies investigating the links between strength training and mortality, researchers found that engaging in muscle-strengthening activities resulted in a 10% to 20% drop in the risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The authors went on to state, "Our findings showed that the maximum risk reduction for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and total cancer was obtained at approximately 30–60 min/week of muscle-strengthening activities ... Given this result, the current recommendation of at least 2 days/week could be reasonable." They went on to caution that "Given that the available data are limited, further studies -- such as studies focusing on a more diverse population -- are needed to increase the certainty of the evidence."
Get Stronger, Live Longer
The wellness benefits of lifting weights have always been obvious to those who take their training seriously, even if the hard scientific data has been a little tardy in arriving. Resistance training, especially as we grow older, makes functional strength possible. Functional strength manifests itself in countless ways as we proceed through our day -- getting up out of a beach chair, carrying groceries in from the car, gardening, house-cleaning, socializing, merely climbing a flight of stairs. Functional strength is the key to remaining optimally active, vital and independent.
Now we are coming to realize that strength training may positively effect our overall health in the most basic of ways -- it may be linked to a reduced risk of disease and early mortality. Much more research needs to be done, of course, but the preliminary message is clear: Lift More, Live Better.
1 C. D. Reimers, G. Knapp, and A. K. Reimers. Does Physical Activity Increase Life Expectancy? A Review of the Literature. J Aging Res. 2012; 2012: 243958.
2 Coleman CJ, McDonough DJ, Pope ZC, et al. Dose–response association of aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activity with mortality: a national cohort study of 416,420 US adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 11 August 2022. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-105519
3 Momma H, Kawakami R, Honda T, et al. Muscle-strengthening activities are associated with lower risk and mortality in major non-communicable diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. British Journal of Sports Medicine, June 16, 2022; 56:755-763.
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