“Strength Training is Good For You”…….. Who Knew?

I know, I know – shocking news, right?   We all obviously know that strength training is important, but I thought you might be interested to learn about two big studies that confirm what we already know.

The first is an analysis of the link between strength, muscle mass, and mortality, from a team in Indiana University using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study.  The protocol was pretty simple:  They assessed 4,400 adults ages 50 or up who had their strength and muscles mass assessed between 1999 and 2002.  The researchers checked back in 2011 to see who had died.

For muscle mass, they used a DEXA scanner to determine that 23 percent of the subjects met one definition of “low muscle mass,” with total muscle in the arms and legs adding up to less than 43. 5 pounds in men or 33 pounds in women.

For muscle strength, they used a device that measures maximum force of the knee extensors (the muscles that allow you to straighten your knee) and found that 19 percent of the subjects had low muscle strength.  (In their legs, at least.)

The results, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found that those with low musclestrength were more than twice as likely to have died during the follow up period than those with normal muscle strength.  TWICE AS LIKELY TO DIE!  In contrast, having low muscle mass didn’t seem to matter as much.

The key takeaway from this study is that function/strength matters much more than how big your muscles are.  This is good news for us older adults – it’s not  so much about what we look like, but more about how strong we are.  I’m inspired to keep encouraging my clients (and myself!)  to continue with their functional squats and lunges.

The second study took aim at the perception that strength training is an afterthought in public health guidelines.  You probably know that we’re supposed to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.  Tons of data support the beneficial health effects of hitting this goal.

But the guidelines also suggest doing “strength promoting exercise” at least twice a week – a clause that’s often forgotten and the benefits of which are usually framed in terms of avoiding frailty and improving the quality of life, rather than extending it.

Researchers in Australia analyzed data from 80,00 adults in England and Scotland who completed surveys about their physical activity patterns starting in the 1990s.  The impressive result was that those who reported doing any strength training were 23 percent less likely to die during the study period and 31 percent less likely to die of cancer.

The good news is that strength training in a gym and doing bodyweight exercises (hello again, squats and lunges) confer roughly equivalent benefits.    So if you can’t go to the gym these Covid 19 days, you’ll get the same benefits if you do your functional strength training at home.

Aerobic exercise is still crucial, especially for protection against heart disease.   The findings of the study showed that the best outcomes of all – a 29 percent reduction in mortality risk – accrued to those who met both the aerobic and strength training guidelines.

In summary, “strength training is good for you.”  Old news, but I’m hoping that the results from these two studies will inspire you to strength train at least twice a week.


Outside Magazine
Alex Hutchinson
Reprinted in Pocket Worthy July 2020

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