Strength Training for Healthspan

2 Men at the Ady Watts Gym lifting dumbbells - back straight

Compared with the years of research into aerobic training, until late, little has been known as to the true benefits of strength training. 

However, once the pursuit of bodybuilders and serious athletes, strength training has, due to new research and media awareness, boomed over recent years. It now competes on an equal footing with aerobic training in popularity.

And rightly so as its benefits are huge!

Let’s look at what the evidence is saying…

Maintaining Muscle Mass
A process called sarcopenia means that from the age of 45 we lose 1% of muscle mass per year. If not addressed, this can account for 30% of our muscle mass in our 7th decade, and up to 50% in our 8th-9th decade of life.

But that’s without intervention…

As we age, we become less active and typically consume less protein meaning we’re to some degree, feeding into the problem.

By strength training twice per week and consuming sufficient protein, you are able to very effectively slow down and even reverse the effects of sarcopenia. This obviously depends on your circumstances and how much you’re prepared to commit!

As you will read below, the common theme throughout is the need to maintain muscle mass as we age. It’s that simple.

Mobility & Falls
As we lose muscle mass, the first thing we lose is our power (or Type 2 muscle fibres to be technically correct). Losing power means we can’t react as quick to situations making slips, trips and falls more likely!

When we strength train, there are two processes happening…

Firstly, there’s a neural response – improved skills. With the improved skill we become more sure-footed, mobile, and our reaction times improve. 

Secondly, we have a physical response – hypertrophy (the development of muscle). The increased muscle mass means that we’re stronger and fatigue less meaning we can perform daily tasks easier and tasks that would’ve put us at increased risk, are no longer so risky.

It’s a combination of both that gives us greater mobility and makes us more resilient to slips, trips and falls.

As well as making falls less likely, strength training and the maintenance of muscles mass gives us more protection if we do fall. Think Mr Bump. 

Resistant Training Graphic

Effects of inactivity and resistance training on physical and cognitive function across the lifespan

Bone Health
Bone is a living tissue and changes with the stress placed upon it. When we strength train, the weight bearing nature of the exercise creates a tension on the muscles and tendons that ‘pulls’ on the bones, which stimulate the bones to grow more tissue. 

As a result of strength training, along with good nutrition, bones can significantly strengthen, reducing the likelihood of osteoporosis, osteopenia and bone fracture. 

Cognitive Function
It is well established that declines in cognitive function accompany ageing.

Research has shown the improvements to executive functions (adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management and organisation) and memory with aerobic training alone. 

Recent research has demonstrated further significant improvements in cognitive function (processing speed, physical function, gait speed and muscle strength) with strength training. A particular improvement is noted when performing movements with an emphasis on speed of movement. 

Chronic Disease
Chronic disease typically leads to a change in body composition – a loss of muscle mass and increase in fat mass. It fast forwards sarcopenia. This can be due to reduced activity, reduced intake of nutrients or treatment for the specific disease. Maintaining muscle mass and strength can help improve physical and psychosocial function, maintain quality of life and resistance to fatigue with chronic disease.

Heath benefits of Aerobic Training & Strength Training

Metabolic Health
Metabolic health is defined by a group of risk factors that contribute to your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and other metabolic diseases.

The risk factors are blood sugar, blood pressure, triglycerides, high density lipoprotein (HDL) and waist circumference.

Sarcopenia, inactivity, and increased fat mass are hallmarks of poor metabolic health. 

As we become less active and our muscle mass diminishes, we don’t challenge our body physically. We don’t elevate our heart rate and use our different energy systems. We lose our ‘metabolic flexibility.’

By maintaining our physical activity levels and muscle mass, we maintain the ability to use our body to its potential and our body maintains its ability to deal with the fuel we consume.

Most of the research into training on metabolic health has previously been focussed on aerobic training. However, new research has highlighted the role strength training can play in metabolic health through development of muscle mass, improved mitochondrial health, increased insulin sensitivity, changes to post exercise lipid profiles and better regulation of blood pressure.

Any form of physical activity has been shown to be of benefit to metabolic health with a combination of aerobic training and strength training being shown to be optimal.

How Much Strength Training Should I Be Doing?
For the beginner, two 30–60-minute sessions per week have been shown to be sufficient.

How Hard Do I Have to Push?
Recent research has shown that you don’t necessarily need to work as hard as once thought. Firstly, if you’re new to strength training, it’s wise to progress in a graded manner. As you get more comfortable with training the closer towards fatigue you can work with exercises or movements that you’re comfortable with.

Just by strength training and exposing your body to the different stresses, you’ll get a host of the above benefits!

Although still not as well researched as aerobic training, there is an awful lot of evidence pointing to the many benefits of strength training. These benefits are due to its ability to help preserve muscle mass, muscle strength, power, improve balance, improve mobility, improve cognitive function and metabolic health.

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