If you thought that weight training was only for bodybuilders and fitness fanatics, think again. We can all benefit from strength training and this doesn't necessarily need to involve lifting free weights or using resistance machines; alternatively, resistance bands may be used or your own body weight to perform exercises such as squats, push ups, sit ups and pull ups. While altering our body composition and physique is a natural consequence of resistance training, the benefits extend far beyond increased muscle mass and a more toned figure. From reducing your risk of chronic diseases to improving your mental health, using weights or resistance exercises really can help you gain a lot in terms of your health and well-being.
Although bigger muscles might be the motivating factor driving some people to work out with weights, even if you aren't looking to achieve bigger biceps and tighter abdominal muscles, building muscle brings with it three important advantages:
Muscle is more metabolically active than fat mass, so you burn more calories to sustain a pound of muscle than you do to sustain a pound of fat. This isn't just the calories you burn on exercise though, it is those that you burn round the clock to support your tissues. This is known as your basal metabolic rate and having more muscle helps to increase its value. Having a higher basal metabolic rate is particularly helpful for anyone wishing to lose weight, as it works in their favor. However, it also makes it easier to maintain your weight, helping to guard against the pounds creeping on. That said, resistance training can only do so much and if you consume excess calories beyond your basal metabolic rate and what you burn from exercise, weight gain will be inevitable. Therefore to aid weight loss, weight training should be used alongside a calorie controlled diet.
Strength training to build more muscle is also advantageous for us as we get older. It is natural for us to lose muscle mass as we age and it is estimated that we lose as much as 5% of our lean body mass per decade after the age of 30; this process is termed sarcopenia. Age-related muscle loss does tend to accelerate once we are in our 70s and partially explains why seniors become frailer and are more likely to experience falls than their younger counterparts. While even those people who exercise still experience sarcopenia, lifting weights or taking part in other resistance exercise can help to reduce the rate at which this muscle loss occurs. Older people who lift cans or whatever else they can manage have the right idea. However, it's best not to wait until sarcopenia has really set in; take action from your 30s onwards to preserve your muscles as best you can. This means that when in your more senior years, problems with everyday tasks should be easier than for someone who has not strength and you are less likely to experience age-related weight gain that can further impair mobility.
It goes without saying that by building muscle through weight training you have a higher percentage muscle mass in your body and a lower fat mass. Having a greater proportion of lean body mass is advantageous when it comes to your risk of chronic diseases, as carrying more body fat - particularly if this is located around your waistline - is a risk factor for a number of conditions; even if you are a supposedly a healthy body weight, if you have a high percentage body fat this is more risky. With more lean body tissue you are less likely to develop high blood pressure, raised cholesterol or elevated triglycerides (another detrimental blood fat), which are some of the common factors that contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke and other vascular problems. You are also better able to control your blood sugar levels when you carry less fat, as fat mass makes it harder for insulin to work effectively, which is the hormone that lowers blood glucose; as a result you reduce your risk of diabetes when you have a higher percentage of lean tissue. While working out does not make you immune to developing these health problems, as a number of risk factors contribute to them, it certainly is one good way to enhance your chances of keeping well into old age.
Increased muscle strength helps to improve performance in sport, but this isn't the only advantage. Resistance training doesn't just increase the strength of your muscles, it increases the strength of your tendons and ligaments as well. This means that you are less likely to suffer an injury such as a pulled muscle, torn ligament or ruptured tendon. While these can occur while participating in exercise, they may also occur when completing day to day tasks you are not used to, so stronger soft tissues don't just benefit athletes, but all of us, as any of us are potentially at risk. While tissues heal relatively easily when we are young as long as the right care is received, this becomes more difficult with age, so seniors in particular should consider incorporating resistance exercises if they don't already do them. This is additionally beneficial, as stronger muscles make them less likely to fall, which reduces the likelihood of them suffering fractures; these again may not heal so easily with age and can have a greater impact on quality of life in the elderly.
It is estimated that half of all women over the age of 50 in the US will break a bone due to osteoporosis and men are also at risk of this bone thinning disease. While a lot of emphasis is placed on adequate intake of calcium and other nutrients essential for bone health, many people do not realize that ensuring they remain physically active can also help to reduce their risk of osteoporosis. Aerobic weight-bearing exercise such as walking, jogging, exercise classes and dancing are advocated to promote bone mineral density to maintain bone strength, there is also evidence that resistance exercise are also beneficial with regards to this. Indeed when people take part in such strength training, they are able to maintain their bone mineral density and this is the case too in post-menopausal women who are at greatest risk of loss of bone density. Studies show that resistance exercise just three times a week are able to provide benefits for one strength, so this is realistic for people to include within their lives. If this wasn't enough incentive, these workouts can also improve balance, reducing the risk of falls, which is particularly important if someone already has osteoporosis.
If you use arthritis or another joint condition as a reason to avoid exercise, thinking that it will cause pain and your joints to flare up, you should reconsider this. Regular resistance exercise is known to keep your joints flexible and increases the range of motion that you can achieve, which is exactly what you need if your joints are currently problematic, as it helps your functional ability. It also increases the strength of your joints by enhancing your muscles, which provides you with extra support. Far from causing wear and tear, increasing your risk of future joint injuries, as long as you don't overdo your weight training it can actually help you to guard against joint problems that may otherwise be still to come. However, if you have any existing joint problem it's always best to seek guidance from a qualified trainer as to which exercises will be best for you and any that need to be avoided.
Improved Blood Glucose Control
Regular exercise is recommended to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but it isn't just aerobic activity that provides benefits for this; resistance training can help to make this form of diabetes less likely as well. While resistance work can help you to achieve a healthier body weight and lower fat stores, which reduces insulin resistance, there is another way in which this helps to improve glycemic control. When you work out your muscles require glucose for respiration to fuel your activity and they obtain this glucose from that which is available in your blood. As a result this helps to keep your blood sugars lower. For anyone who has a family history of the disease or other risk factors for type 2 diabetes, they would benefit from making weights or an alternative form of resistance activity a regular part of their weekly schedule. These exercises are also beneficial to anyone who already has diabetes to aid blood sugar control, but care should be taken to check blood glucose both pre and post-exercise to reduce the risk of hypoglycemia.
Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Yet another benefit of strength exercise is that it reduces your risk of develop problems with your heart and blood vessels. As aerobic activity is good for your heart, it follows that resistance work should be too. As with aerobic exercise, activities to build strength help to increase blood flow and while you might not think it, the extent to which blood flow is increased is actually greater with that geared towards enhancing strength. There is also evidence that this form of activity also reduces blood pressure. Just like it was once thought that aerobic exercise wasn't good for someone with heart disease, the myth that resistance exercise is a no-no in this group is still doing the rounds. However, just like people looking to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, those with heart disease can benefit from moderate weight training. If it's a long time since you exercised you're best to get a medical before you start and if you're new to weights, it's advisable to seek advice from a qualified instructor as to where to start.
Healthier Digestive Transit
The link might seem unlikely, but strength training has been frequently associated with a decrease in gastrointestinal time; this means that food and undigested matter passes more quickly through the digestive system. If you are wondering why this is of benefit, a slower transit time is associated with a number of gastrointestinal disorder; acid reflux, diverticular disease and colorectal cancers are all more likely when movement through the digestive system is slowed. It goes without saying that bowel cancer can be bad news, but while heartburn might just seem unpleasant, if it persists it can lead to damage to the esophagus, which includes pre-cancerous changes to the cells and narrowing. Meanwhile diverticular disease can lead to the development of abscesses within the colon, infection within the abdominal cavity and an obstruction within the intestines. Even if you aren't actively seeking to improve your digestive health through strength exercises, it's a helpful advantage of them.
Improved Mental Well-being
While you might not automatically make the link between weight training and mental health, when you think about some of the changes that occur within the body it's easier to make the connection. As with aerobic activity, when you lift weights or use other resistance equipment, this induces positive shifts in your brain chemistry by triggering the release of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters that is known to induce feelings of well-being. However, this isn't the only reason to feel positive. If using weights you are able to lose weight or improve your figure, you will receive a mental boost from doing so, helping to increase both your confidence and self-esteem; when these are enhanced you are more likely to have a brighter mood. Similarly, if working out helps you to achieve other things such as improved performance in sport or it increases your ability to mobilize or complete tasks if you are in your more senior years, this will also provide you with a boost. Taking part in strength exercises can additionally help when it comes to providing an avenue for stress release, helping to prevent negative feelings from building up. There is also evidence that resistance exercise helps to promote better sleep patterns, which themselves are associated with improved mental well-being.
Now that you understand that working with weights isn't all about big muscles and that strength and resistance training brings so many benefits, we all have good reason to make it a regular part of our weekly schedule.