Strength training isn’t just about feeling good – lifting weights can also future-proof us against certain illnesses and health issues as we get older.
Strength training has so many relatively immediate benefits. It can improve mental health, boost your metabolism and can make for an effective cardio workout – without running. But strength training also offers some important long-term health benefits that will go towards ensuring we’re still lunging for years to come.
Doing regular exercise is one of the most important things we can do to safeguard our health, alongside a balanced diet. While any kind of movement can work wonders, strength training has specific health benefits. Here are just some of them:
Strength training can reduce the risk of developing type II diabetes
People develop type II diabetes after becoming insulin resistant. That means that their body no longer is able to clear blood sugar as effectively as it should and the level of glucose in the blood becomes too high. If left unattended to, it can have serious ramifications – from stroke and nerve damage to blindness and miscarriage.
A study that involved 35,754 women looked at the incidence of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease between those who did strength training and those who didn’t. It found that women who lifted weights reduced their risk of type II diabetes by 30% and cardiovascular disease by 17%.
It also reduces your chances of heart disease
Weightlifting is good for your heart, and it doesn’t take much – so says a 2018 study from Iowa State University. Lifting weights for less than one hour a week may reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by up to 70%, researchers concluded, with the results showing that the huge benefits of strength training are independent of running or any other kind of aerobic activity.
“People may think they need to spend a lot of time lifting weights, but just two sets of bench presses that take less than five minutes could be effective,” said DC Lee, associate professor of kinesiology and study co-author.
Weightlifting can be used to manage arthritic pain
Arthritis Action says that regular exercise is “essential as it helps to strengthen the muscles that protect and support the joints”. It’s even been proven to help reduce pain. The less active you are, the weaker your muscles become – which makes joints feel less stable, causing pain when they move. That then leads to painful joints which can prompt people to be less active (and so the cycle repeats).
The charity recommends people try (among other things) resistance training and weight-bearing exercises as a way of reducing the risk of osteoporosis and improving strength, balance and posture.
It also reduces the risk of osteoporosis as we age
While all genders become more susceptible to osteoporosis as we age, it’s a condition that tends to be more common in women.
Dr Sarah Jarvis previously told Strong Women that “it’s important to perform regular weight-bearing exercise, which is pretty much any type of exercise apart from swimming and cycling”. By doing that, you’re strengthening the muscles around your joints; even people living with arthritis are recommended to engage in regular physical activity to keep movement in the joints.
To reduce the rate of natural bone loss that occurs from the age of 35, the NHS recommends that all adults over the age of 35 do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week. It specifically recommends weight lifting and exercising with resistance bands as two examples of bone-loving activities.
Strength training can make symptoms of depression more manageable
Strength training offers plenty of mental health benefits. We previously heard from William Pullen, a London-based psychotherapist and BACP member, who told Stylist that while poor mental health can be debilitating and often lead to “feelings of powerlessness, strength training not only makes you feel physically stronger but serves as an alternative, bite-sized and effective route to confidence.”
And there are studies to back him up on that. A meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials (totalling 1,877 subjects) concluded that resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults. More in-depth analysis showed that these mental health benefits were more pronounced for people performing low-to-moderate intensity strength training and that people with mild-to-moderate depression seemed to reap the most benefits.
Lifting heavy weights may rebalance hormonal issues
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects up to one in five women. It’s caused by a hormonal imbalance and can result in a variety of side effects, from missing periods to acne, excessive hair and fat gain. While not much is known about the syndrome, there are studies that claim strength training is one tool you can use to work towards rebalancing hormonal health. Far from being about weight loss, better-balanced hormones can improve sleep quality, mood regulation, appetite and fertility.
A 2015 study found that high-intensity interval training for 10 weeks improved insulin resistance in women with PCOS – without weight loss. Another piece of research followed 43 women with PCOS as they participated in a 16-week strength training programme. After that ended, the participants saw a significant decrease in their testosterone levels. The study also looked at the impact that strength training had on women without PCOS, and found that they experienced “significant improvements” in mental health by week 16 – proving that there are benefits for everyone!
Strength training helps to protect against obesity
Strength training is for everyone – whatever your body shape. At Strong Women, we don’t talk diets or “body goals” and the Training Club is a totally inclusive space for all bodies. Strength training does, however, reduce the risk of becoming medically obese, which is known to increase the risk of other issues like heart disease, high blood pressure and certain kinds of cancers.
Regular exercise (moving in whatever way makes you feel good) can help to reduce your risk of obesity – which isn’t and shouldn’t be simply a cosmetic concern. One way strength training can help is by improving your metabolism.
When we lift weights, our muscles need more energy to operate and that energy is only accessible when oxygen helps to break down fat and carbohydrates. During exercise, we breathe faster and our hearts beat harder to pump more oxygen, fat and carbs into our muscles. When we finish the session, that oxygen uptake remains elevated because our muscles still need those fats and carbs to be broken down to help them repair and return to a rested state. That process is known as “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC), or the “after-burn effect”.
If obesity isn’t something you’re worried about and fat burning isn’t a goal, just remember that lifting weights will leave you feeling stronger than ever.
The next time you want to take a break from your desk or the sofa, have a go at a simple sumo squat. A compound move, it works your biggest muscles while loading the knee and ankle joints. Add a pair of weights if you have them or move super-slow in the eccentric part of the exercise (when you come back up) for the ultimate muscle-loving burn.
Take your fitness up a notch by joining one of the SWTC training plans. Let us know how you get on. It’s time to get strong!
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.