Exercise in general has been well-researched and is associated with improved health and longevity. An understanding of the benefits of strength training has led to many nations producing exercise guidelines that include it, usually alongside aerobic exercise and nutritional recommendations. The World Health Organisation recommends adults perform strength exercises at least two days each week. A fairly recent review (Stamatakis et al., 2018), published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, examined the benefits of strength training in particular, and health outcomes for participants. The purpose of this article is to summarise some of the benefits and the mechanisms reported in that review.
Benefits of Strength Training
Overall, strength training is often recommended purely for the sake of improving strength, with the expectation this will, in turn, support function (the ability to perform tasks). Increasing muscle size and strength has benefits beyond aesthetic improvements, including a reduced risk of disease. Specifically, strength training has been found to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in both men and women, as well as reduced death from cancer or heart attacks. Although aerobic exercise can be helpful too, and strength and aerobic training together confer the most benefits, strength training stands out for being one of the best means of reducing diabetes risk and promoting function.
How Strength Training Helps
Strength training is beneficial through a number of mechanisms. The simple act of moving promotes blood flow to joints, supporting their health. Increasing the strength of muscles and tendons reduces their vulnerability to injuries (or reinjuring a previously damaged muscle or tendon). Strength training helps the connections between the brain and muscles that control movement, helping to preserve function into and throughout older age. When it comes to the metabolic benefits – such as improved tolerance of glucose and reduced risk of diabetes – more and bigger muscle cells mean that more glucose can be taken in and used. Those muscle cells become more efficient at managing the glucose in the blood, and work more efficiently with fat cells and the liver to manage whole body glucose. Strength training has also been found to reduce whole-body inflammation, which is important for general health and well-being. It also reduces symptoms of depression, whilst improving cognitive function – the aspects of brain function associated with memory, understanding, thinking and problem-solving. Cognitive function is known to decrease with age, making strength training even more important for older individuals, and beyond the benefits for functional capacity alone.
In their review, Stamatakis et al., (2018), reported that strength training was associated with a 23% reduction in death through all-causes, and a 31% reduction in deaths from cancer. Importantly, the benefits of strength training could be enjoyed equally whether based in a professional gym or performed at home, using home-gym equipment and bodyweight exercises. Strength training can work well by itself, or in combination with aerobic training.
Strength training is important for more than the obvious benefits of aesthetics from increased muscle size and strength. Strength training is beneficial for our functional capacity, for protecting aspects of our brains during ageing, for mental health, and for improved longevity, overall health and quality of life. These benefits can result from either participation at a gym or using bodyweight and home-gym equipment.
Stamatakis E, Lee IM, Bennie J, Freeston J, Hamer M, O'Donovan G, Ding D, Bauman A, Mavros Y. Does Strength-Promoting Exercise Confer Unique Health Benefits? A Pooled Analysis of Data on 11 Population Cohorts With All-Cause, Cancer, and Cardiovascular Mortality Endpoints. Am J Epidemiol. 2018 May 1;187(5):1102-1112. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwx345. PMID: 29099919.