An analysis of data from nearly 100,000 older adults revealed that exercising with weights was associated with a 9% to 22% lower risk of death, with the variation due to the amount of time spent weight lifting. The biggest decrease in the risk of death, as much as 47% compared to those who engaged in no exercise, was among those who both weight lifted and participated in aerobic activities, according to the report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
“The bottom line is that we found that adults who reported weightlifting had a lower risk of mortality than those who did not and those who did best combined weightlifting with aerobic activity,” said the study’s first author, Jessica Gorzelitz, an assistant professor of health promotion in the department of health and human physiology at the University of Iowa. “In addition, some weightlifting is better than none and more is better than less.”
While it’s not known exactly how weightlifting could extend lifespan, there are theories, Gorzelitz said. A leading one is that people with stronger muscles are less likely to fall, she added.
To take a closer look at the impact of weightlifting on longevity, Gorzelitz and her team turned to data from the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial, which was started in 1993 and includes information from 154,897 men and women who were aged 55 to 74 at the outset.
In 2006, the trial started adding questions about resistance training, asking if participants had done any weight lifting in the past 12 months (specifically: less than once per month, one to three times per month, one to two times per week, three to six times per week and seven times a week). The trial investigators also asked about the frequency and duration of aerobic activities.
For the new study, Gorzelitz and her team focused on data from 99,713 participants, whose age at the beginning of follow-up ranged from 66 to 76. Over an average of 9.6 years 28,477 of the study volunteers died.
Twenty-three percent of the adults in the study said they did some weightlifting and 16% said they regularly weightlifted between one and six times a week.
Overall, study volunteers who reported any weightlifting had a 9% lower risk of dying from any cause, a 9% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, but no reduction in the risk of dying from cancer. The reductions in risk rose with the number of days per week of weight lifting. Compared to those who neither weightlifted nor performed aerobic exercises, participants who weightlifted one to two times a week had a 22% lower risk of death. Participants who met aerobic exercise guidelines but did not weightlift had a 32% reduction in the risk of death.
Participants who met aerobic exercise guidelines and weightlifted one to two days a week saw as much as a 47% decrease in the risk of dying.
The findings were especially strong in women, the researchers noted.
“As an orthopedic surgeon, I found the study particularly interesting,” said Dr. Alexis Colvin, a professor and sports medicine surgeon at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York. “Weightlifting and weight bearing exercises are something orthopedists have been trying to advocate for for years.”
A look at hip fracture data underscores the importance of muscle strengthening, said Colvin who was not involved in the study. Adults who fracture a hip have a 25% to 30% chance of dying within a year of the injury, she added.
Unfortunately, Colvin said, a lot of women shy away from weightlifting. “They have a misconception that they are going to get bulky and they don’t want to have that kind of appearance,” she added. “And this means they are missing out on weightlifting’s preventive effects on bone density.”
The study clearly shows weightlifting’s beneficial effects on longevity, said Dr. Matthew Harinstein, a cardiologist and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “The take home message is that many physicians should not only recommend walking and running as they traditionally do, but they should also add muscle strengthening exercises to their recommendations.”
What’s not clear, Harinstein said, is what exactly to recommend. “It’s easy for people to understand they should spend 30 minutes on a treadmill, but it’s a little more nebulous when it comes to weight lifting.”
While there are national recommendations for aerobic exercise, there aren’t any for weightlifting, said Dr. Christopher Visco, a sports medicine specialist and an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at the Columbia University Vegelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.
Prior to this study there was some research on how strength training could help with physical functioning, Visco said. “This paper specifically looks at mortality and the impact of strength training, and it showed a weightlifting is beneficial,” he added.
Those who would like to start a resistance training program should talk to their doctors first to make sure it will be safe, Visco said.
For those starting out, there are some simple exercises that can be done at home, Visco said. For example, “wall squats,” in which the person backs up against a wall and squats down a few inches, he suggested.
“You can feel it in the glutes and quads,” Visco said. “You’re simply using the body’s own weight. You don’t need to go to a gym to get the benefits they describe in the article. Folks in the age group they’re talking about here, the biggest predictor of mortality is whether you can get out of a chair without help. To do that, you need strength in the big muscles of your arms and legs.”