Some of you may think of exercise as only doing “cardio”, meaning you are increasing your heart rate through activities such as brisk walking, running, bicycling, swimming, using cardio equipment at the gym (treadmill, stationary bicycle, elliptical, stair master etc.), or group exercise classes (Zumba, Step, Cycle). Cardiovascular exercise helps to improve the function and performance of your heart and lungs, and it helps to improve mental health, mood, sleep, weight management and metabolism. On the other hand, strength training is movement in which you use equipment or your body weight to build muscle mass, strength and endurance. Do you stop and think about why strength training is also important for your body? Do you actually participate in strength training sessions focusing on all your major muscle groups at least 2-3 days each week? You may be thinking that you are okay with just doing cardio exercise and don’t want to add in strength training. Here’s why you should re-think this.
Muscles follow a “use it or lose it” principle. We start losing muscle mass at a rate of about 0.5% per year staring in our thirties. By the time we are in our fifties we are losing considerably more each year (1-2%) and then up to 3% per year in our sixties. So by the time you are 70 years old you may have lost 40% or more of your muscle mass. In addition, your muscle fibers get smaller as you age, and the muscles are less able to contract. So the bad news is that you will lose some muscle mass as you get older even if you’ve been doing strength training. But the good news is that you can slow down the muscle loss, and you can build muscle at any age.
Muscle strength also decrease as you age. This loss of strength occurs 2-5 times as fast as muscle mass loss. Muscle strength is dependent not only on muscle size but also on the interaction of the nervous system with the muscle. Strength training helps increase both muscle strength and muscle size. When you first start strength training you will likely notice that your muscles are stronger before you notice an increase in muscle size. This is because the strength adaptations that happen initially are mostly neuromuscular.
Strength training can help you maintain your independence as you age. In order to move your body from one place to another, stand up from a chair, and to walk up a flight of stairs, you need strength in your muscles. Strength training helps preserve your ability to move in general, improves balance and flexibility, and can make performing daily activities of living (such as gardening, cleaning the house, walking the dog) easier and more enjoyable for you. Additionally, the more you move, the lower your heart rate and the easier it will be to breathe, leading to more enjoyment of activities.
Strength training can help prevent falls as you age. Through strength training you can increase your strength and power so that you are better able to catch yourself if you start to fall. One in three women and one in five men over the age of 50 will fall and fracture a bone due to osteoporosis. To lower your fall risk, do activities that will not only build strength but will also improve your balance and coordination such as yoga, Tai Chi, dancing and hiking. Hiking strengthens your ankles, challenges your balance and will help build muscle as you move uphill and downhill on the hiking trails.
Strength training helps prevent osteoporosis. Weight-bearingexercise where you are standing and gravity is pulling down on your body lightly stresses and strengthens muscles and bones. When a muscle contracts, it pulls on the bones it is attached to, leading to the bone cells making structural proteins and moving minerals into the bone. This makes the bone more dense, stronger and less likely to break. Your strength training routine should include some standing weight-bearing activities like squats and lunges.
Doing strength training leads to less abdominal fat. Harvard researchers followed more than 10,000 men for 12 years and found that strength training was more effective than cardiovascular exercise in preventing increases in abdominal fat. Adding strength training to your exercise routine will burn calories and increase lean muscle mass. Muscle tissue burns more calories, even at rest, than body fat so it makes sense that you will have less of an increase in fat stores if you are doing strength training regularly.
Working your muscles can decrease your blood sugar. Muscle is metabolically active, and it uses and stores more glucose (or blood sugar) than any other tissue in the body. The more muscle you have, the more blood sugar will be used. Research using patients with type 2 diabetes found that patients who participated in strength training (and not cardiovascular exercise) had improved blood sugar levels. Another study showed that patients with type 2 diabetes who participated in both strength training and cardiovascular exercise had a larger decrease in A1c levels (a long term measure of blood sugar levels) compared to the patients who participated in only one or the other. Strength training can also decrease your risk of developing diabetes since it helps improve the ability of insulin to move the sugar out of the blood and into the body’s cells.
Strength training can help you live longer. There are a number of research studies which have found that strength training is associated with a decreased risk of dying. It appears that muscle strength and amount of lean muscle mass are better indicators of health than body mass index (BMI). It is unclear exactly why strengthening your muscles keeps you alive longer. Some theories include:
So hopefully now you are convinced that adding strength training to your exercise routine is worthwhile. But perhaps you are not sure where to start. Here are some tips:
Would you like to learn more about exercise? Click here to read the “Let’s Get Moving” Blog post.