Hello muscles: 10 benefits of strength training

Health writer Paula Goodyer weighs just 52kg and can deadlift 90kg, more than she could 30 years ago. The author of Fit and Firm For Ever had a light bulb moment 6 years ago to invest in staying strong. And science backs her up, as she writes in this article for Citro.

Four years ago a woman called Willy Murphy made headlines after beating off an intruder in her apartment. Her story went viral, not just because she’d subdued a 28-year-old man by hitting him over the head with a table, but because she was 82 at the time.

Willy had kept up her strength with regular weight training, proving that you can be both old and strong.  

There are reasons to work at staying strong that have nothing to do with self defence  but everything to do with  daily living – like carrying little kids, hauling garbage bins and climbing stairs.

Not that this was on my mind when I began lifting in my 40s, learning to squat, deadlift and raise a barbell above my head at the gym.

Back then, lifting was more about vanity - running kept me fit but weights improved my shape and posture.  

Now, at 70-ish, I’m lifting heavier weights than in my 40s, but it’s as much about function as vanity - thanks to a lightbulb moment 6 years ago.

Strength keeps frailty at bay

I was visiting a neighbour in aged care and as I stepped into the lift to reach her floor, I saw that more space in that lift was occupied by Zimmer frames than humans.

Each passenger was hunched over a walker. In that moment I wondered how different things would be if, instead of defaulting to a walker, we fought off frailty with strength training.

That’s when I vowed to become as strong as I possibly could and asked a personal trainer to show me how.

The payoff has been huge:  lifting grandkids, shifting heavy garden pots, or hauling a backpack on public transport while travelling is no problem.

There’s also the confidence that comes from feeling strong, and there’s less fatigue and more stamina - strength training helps boost muscle endurance so that everyday tasks are  easier and you can keep going longer without tiring.    

Muscle strength is essential for independence yet many of us give it up without a fight, believing that frailty is inevitable and we can’t change it.

But science is confirming what Willy Murphy showed the world - that we can choose to be stronger even when we’re older.

Muscle mass matters at all ages: meet myokines

When Canadian researchers at the University of Regina put a group of 60- to 70-year-old men through a 22-week strength training program and then compared them with a group of 18 to 31-year-old untrained men, for example, they found the 2 groups were similar in muscle mass and strength.  

The message here is that maintaining muscle isn’t just for younger people or athletes but for anyone who wants to stay active and independent into older age - and isn’t that all of us?  

Regular strength training can also keep us healthier in multiple ways.

Author Paula Goodyer practices what she preaches.

Professor Rob Newton of the Exercise Medicine Research Institute at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia compares building muscle to building a personal pharmacy stocked with ‘medicine’ that does your body good.

“Muscle tissue isn't just for movement – it also secretes a range of beneficial chemicals called myokines that have a positive effect on the rest of the body. That's why sedentary living is so bad for us – if we don't maintain muscle tissue, our 'pharmacy' starts to shrink and we produce fewer of these beneficial chemicals," he explains.

Here are just some of the benefits of regular strength training.  

Strength training benefit #1: A sharper brain  

Frailty isn’t just a problem for how we function physically - it’s not great for our brains either, with growing evidence now linking frailty to a higher risk of dementia.  

The good news is that a 2019 study from the University of Sydney found that six months of strength training in older people with mild cognitive impairment improved brain function.

It also helped protect areas of the brain vulnerable to Alzheimer’s from deterioration and shrinkage.  Better blood flow to the brain and reduced inflammation may be part of the reason, along with the help of a kind of ‘brain fertiliser’ that’s produced when we exercise. Called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF) , it helps maintain brain cells.

Strength training benefit #2: Healthier blood sugar  

Because muscles need  fuel to keep working they soak up blood sugar (glucose) like a sponge  - that’s why muscle strengthening exercise is so good for keeping blood sugar levels healthy, preventing or managing type 2 diabetes.

Strength training benefit #3: A good night’s sleep    

A number of studies - including some with older people - have linked regular strength training to better sleep, with some research finding that it improves sleep quality more effectively than aerobic exercise.

Strength training benefit #4: Better weight control

Building more muscle makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight - muscle is active tissue that burns up kilojoules even when you’re not moving.  Since excess weight can exacerbate arthritis, cardiovascular issues and other health conditions, this is one of its great benefits.

Strength training benefit #5: Improved heart health

Regular strength training can help keep levels of blood pressure and cholesterol healthy.  

Strength training benefit #6: Stronger bones

Exercising with weights targeting the hips, spine and wrists, helps prevent and treat osteoporosis by causing muscles to tug on bones, forcing bone to lay down more bone tissue. Strength training can also improve stability and reduce the risk of falls.

Strength training benefit #7: Less arthritis pain

Strength training and other exercise eases arthritis pain by helping to strengthen muscles around the joints and keep you moving. Strengthening the muscles around arthritic joints reduces the load on the joints, alleviating pain associated with arthritis.

While strength training primarily targets muscles, it indirectly benefits joints by promoting the production of synovial fluid. This fluid nourishes the cartilage potentially reducing arthritis-related discomfort.

Strength training benefit #8: It lifts your mood

Like aerobic exercise, lifting weights is a mood booster, with studies showing that strength training improves anxiety and depression. One 2018 study  also found that the mood boost from strength training had nothing to do with how much stronger  people got or how long each session lasted  -but simply  from doing it.  

Strength training benefit #9: Preventing and treating cancer

Regular exercise lowers the risk of some cancers and strength training is now recognised as essential therapy for people with cancer. One reason may be because it maintains the quantity and quality of our muscle, keeping it lean, explains Rob Newton

“But physical inactivity reduces its quality by increasing fat in the muscle. There are studies showing that survival from a range of cancers is associated with the quality of a person’s muscle as well as its quantity.  The mechanism is likely to be the critical role of muscle in maintaining the effectiveness of the immune system,” he says.

Strength training benefit #10: A boost for longevity  

A study of more than 80,000 people by the University of Sydney found that those who did strength-based exercises had a 23% reduction in the risk of premature death from any cause - and a 31% reduction in death from cancer.

Paula Goodyer has written this free guide to easy ways to improve your health span. You can download it straight to your device by clicking on this link.

Where do I start if I want to become stronger?

You can boost muscle strength in different ways.
• With free weights (barbells, dumbells, kettlebells or even cans of food if you’re working out at home. An old backpack loaded with bags of sand or water is also an excellent weight training device.) Free weights have the advantage of forcing you to use extra muscles to keep yourself stable.
• Using resistance machines at the gym. These can be better for older people who are less stable.
• Resistance bands. These look like giant rubber bands - stretching them is an effective way to strengthen muscles and you can use them at home.   Resistance bands and lightweight dumb bells are a good way for beginners to start.
Bodyweight exercises like push ups, pull ups, triceps dips, planks, lunges and squats.

Joining a gym, hiring a personal trainer for a few sessions, or consulting an Accredited Exercise Physiologist all involve some cost but can be a good investment in health and function, and learning the correct technique.

It’s no longer unusual to see people in their 60s and 70s using weights at the gym!  

Other options are community exercise programs or online resources like Exercise Right to help you with muscle strengthening exercises at home.  
There’s also good advice for beginners here at the Better Health Channel.

The aim is to progressively make muscle strengthening exercises more challenging as you get stronger.  either by increasing the weight of your barbell, dumb bell or weights machine  – or increasing the number of repetitions of an exercise.

If you have a health problem that can be improved with exercise including strength training you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate for some sessions with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist or a physiotherapist. You might also have private health insurance that can cover the costs.

Read more about the science of strength.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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