The Whole-Body Benefits of Strength Training
To stay fit for running, biking, or skiing all year-round, you already know the importance of keeping up regular cardio workouts. But you may be missing out on another core element of a balanced fitness program: weight training (or “resistance training,” as it’s known to fitness researchers).
Beyond weight training’s obvious muscle-building power, it offers great—and sometimes surprising—health benefits for your entire body. Plus, you don’t have to be a full-on gym rat to get these benefits; most of them are achievable with as little as two twenty-minute sessions a week. Whether you work out with free weights at home or with specialty equipment at the gym, adding a little iron to your training diet can make a lifelong difference.
It’s a matter of basic math: Increased muscle mass means increased caloric burn. A pound of muscle simply requires more energy for maintenance than does a pound of fat. Plus, recent research shows that a vigorous strength-training workout revs your metabolism for up to 40 hours as your body repairs tiny tears in your muscles. Whether you’re looking to shed a few pounds, maintain your waistline, or simply justify a plateful of holiday treats, regular resistance training can help you achieve your weight-watching goals.
Especially for women, weight training is a critical part of maintaining healthy bone mineral density (BMD) over time. Though most people don’t begin losing BMD until their 50s or 60s, building strong bones earlier in life helps minimize age-related bone conditions such as osteoporosis and hip fractures—the top cause of mobility loss and nursing home admissions in senior women. Squats, weighted lunges, and step-ups are all simple exercises that are especially helpful for increasing BMD in the bones of the hips and legs.
Balancing Blood Sugar
With nearly 30 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes and another estimated 86 million with pre-diabetic conditions, this tough-to-treat condition is the seventh most common cause of death among American adults. Fortunately, strength training is proven to be an effective way to regulate blood sugar (and, by proxy, diabetes symptoms). Muscles require glucose to operate, and the more frequently and vigorously they’re exercised, the more receptors they develop to help transport glucose into their cells. The result: Better control of blood sugar levels, even among individuals who already have reduced insulin sensitivity.
Until just a few years ago, cardiac patients were advised to avoid weight lifting for fear of causing a heart attack. But recent research shows that regular strength training boosts cardiovascular health in a number of ways. Compared to aerobic exercise, lifting weights produces a 20% longer-lasting drop in blood pressure. It also widens blood vessels, allowing a less restricted flow of blood, and raises HDL (good) cholesterol while reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol.
To keep your memory stronger for longer, you might want to add weight lifting to your regimen of crossword puzzles and stimulating conversations. A recent study of senior adults with mild to moderate memory problems showed that strength training—but not cardio exercise or light toning—helped stave off the development of full-blown dementia. Though researchers aren’t sure why strength training showed this protective effect, its overall benefits to memory are undeniable.
Feeling low? Grab a set of hand weights and snap out a few bicep curls. A study by Harvard researchers showed that a combined program of cardio and strength training reduced depression symptoms as effectively as prescription antidepressants. Study participants also reported better sleep, improved body image, and lower stress levels overall. Even after the study period ended, participants who kept up their new exercise habit reported less depression ten months later than those whose depression was treated with medication alone.
Ready to add strength training to your regular workouts? Check out these online resources for getting started safely and effectively.