- A new study suggests that adding weightlifting to aerobic exercise further reduces the risk of overall mortality.
- The study found that weightlifting is associated with an additional 9% reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality, while aerobic exercise alone reduces it by 32%.
- Weightlifting alone was also associated with a 15% reduced risk of cancer mortality.
- While the results show that aerobic exercise was associated with a 30% lower risk of cancer mortality when met the guidelines, there was no overall added benefit for weightlifting.
- According to experts, it is never too late to start weight training to reap the benefits, and positive effects can be observed even with modest amounts.
A new study examined the benefits of two types of exercise for overall mortality: aerobic exercise and weightlifting.
For the study, the researchers defined aerobic exercise as moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and weightlifting as muscle-strengthening exercise (MSE).
There is not much available research on the effects of MSE on mortality as on MVPAs. Therefore, the study authors examined the effects of the individual studies on mortality individually and collectively. They also investigated the effects of both types of exercise on cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer.
“Weightlifting and [aerobic exercise] were associated with a lower risk of overall cause and CVD mortality, but not with cancer mortality. Adults who met the recommended amounts of both types of exercise appeared to receive additional benefits,” the study authors wrote.
The study was recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Investigating the effects of weightlifting and cardio
The researchers analyzed data from questionnaires completed in 1993 by 154,897 men and women aged 55 to 74 years of age screening study for prostate, lung, colon and ovarian cancer.
99,713 of the participants then described their weightlifting in a follow-up survey, which did not record what type of weightlifting was carried out, but asked about the frequency in large categories.
Next, researchers summarized these categories in weightlifting over the past 12 months or none. Those who did muscle strengthening exercises (MSE) reported weightlifting:
- less than once a month
- 1 to 3 times
- 1 to 2 times a week per month
- 3 to 7 times a week
In 2006, the same group of participants described their weightlifting in a subsequent up survey, which did not record whether the type of weightlifting or its frequency met current recommended guidelines for weight training. The researchers continued to track their health — and mortality — until 2016.
Based on the results of the follow-up survey and health monitoring, which lasted almost 10 years, the study concluded:
- There was a 32% lower risk of all-cause mortality among people who met recommended MVPA levels but did not perform weightlifting.
- The risk of overall mortality fell by 9% among people who had carried out weightlifting in the previous 12 months after taking into account a benefit from MVPA.
- Those who met MVPA recommendations and had done weightlifting in the last year had a 41% reduction in the risk of overall mortality with no interactive bonus in risk reduction.
Lead author of the study, Jessica Gorzelitz, assistant professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Health and Human Physiology, explained to Medical News Today:
“Older adults who participated in weightlifting had significantly lower mortality before and after; taking into account participation in aerobic exercise and, above all, those who did both types of exercise had the lowest risk.”
Linda S. Pescatello, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut who was not involved in the study, told MNT:
“I no longer think that one modality [or] type of exercise is better than the other. Personally, I prefer aerobic training over resistance training. Rather, both result in overlapping but in some cases different benefits from the others.”
Recommendations for aerobic and strength work
Current guidelines for physical activity for 150 minutes per week for medium-intensity training or 75 minutes of intensive training, or an equal amount of both, spread evenly over the week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer a way to differentiate between the two forms of movement:
“If you can talk but can’t sing during a workout, you’ve achieved a moderate level of effort. If you can’t say more than a few words before taking a deep breath, do intensive physical exercise.”
Experts recommend doing both moderate and vigorous exercises regularly with at least two strength training sessions per week on non-consecutive days.
Dr. Christopher Cooper, professor emeritus of medicine and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, explained to MNT:
“Muscle strengthening works through resistance training. You actually break down muscle at the cellular level, and then it rebuilds itself and restores itself stronger, but you have to set aside time to recover in between.”
Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity and population health at the University of Sydney who was not involved in the study, noted: “The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 2 to 4 sets of 8—15 repetitions of each strength-boosting exercise with 2-3 minute breaks between sets.”
Why weight lifting can increase life expectancy
Although the study was observational and found associations in the data rather than in causal relationships, Gorzelitz suggested some possible causes for reducing the risk of mortality from weightlifting:
“Weightlifting is associated with improvements in strength associated with function both in performance contexts and in daily living activities. As a dedicated weightlifter, going to the gym to visit my regular crew is not only motivating, it’s also a great social activity for me.”
Prof. Stamatakis told Medical News Today:
“Weightlifting is one of many types of exercises to promote muscle strength. As you age, regular strength-boosting exercise has countless health benefits, including maintaining or increasing muscle mass, maintaining the ability to perform everyday tasks, and preventing musculoskeletal problems and falls.”
“Maintaining muscle mass is extremely important not only for functional strength, but also for glucose control and prevention of type 2 diabetes, as muscles are a very metabolically active tissue.”
— Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity and population health at the University of Sydney
Commenting on the results of the study, Dr. Cooper stated: “This is an older population — the age at the time of the questionnaires was 71 years. It is therefore likely that [fewer] falls could have been an “important factor” in reducing overall deaths.
Gorzelitz agreed and said that “weightlifters have better neuromuscular coordination, which may be associated with a lower risk of injury or fall.”
The results relate specifically to people who have done weightlifting, not any other form of muscle strength training.
The benefits were similar for weightlifting last year (less than once a month) as for people who reported weightlifting once or twice a week, representing an 18% reduction in the risk of overall mortality compared to 24%.
This suggests that some of the effects may not simply be due to an increase in muscle strength, but may include the desire to increase and the means to do so.
Getting started with weightlifting
“People may not be familiar with weightlifting and not know how to start,” noted Gorzelitz.
“Our results suggest that some are better than none, and it’s okay to start slowly and progress as strength and confidence increase. It is important to train all major muscle groups in the body — legs, hips, back, stomach, chest, shoulders and arms.”
“Perhaps the most practical and accessible type of strength training for most middle-aged and older adults is to exercise their own weight without any equipment such as push-ups, squats, sit-ups, pull-ups, or even static exercises such as planks,” noted Prof. Stamatakis.
“When done correctly and regularly, [planks] can be just as effective as weightlifting, and [they] can be done at home or in the park, environments that appeal more to many people than gyms,” he added.
Daniel Griffin, physical therapist at Resilience Physical Therapy and Wellness in Agawam, MA, who was not involved in the study, suggested to MNT:
“3 exercises that I often prescribe for people who are new to weightlifting and have no musculoskeletal disorders are deadlifts (picking up a weight from the floor), isometric push-ups or boards (with raised hands if needed) and inverted rows (which are done at home with a suspension trainer can). When combined, these three exercises can strengthen all major muscle groups in the body.”
Dr. Cooper recommended: “For someone who isn’t used to muscle strength, [try] simple exercises with thera bands, the elastic bands. These types of exercises are graded in their elasticity, making it easy to start and work out.”
“Things like sitting to standing, sitting to standing with small hand weights, all of this is better than nothing with someone who is just starting out with muscle strengthening exercises,” he added.
“As people get stronger, [weightlifting] must be more structured and target the most important muscle groups in the arms and legs, both the extensor and the flexor. They get into more complex workout routines, for which people go to fitness clubs and pay coaches to monitor them. Or they make circuits on power engines and so on, self-designed racetracks.”
— Dr. Christopher Cooper, professor emeritus of medicine and physiology at UCLA