I started strength training 4 years ago because my doctor told me that it can help improve function for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. At 36, I’d recently dislocated my kneecap, which exacerbated the arthritis I’d already developed from carrying around 80 extra pounds for 25 years. I was dealing with chronic pain, stiffness and reduced mobility and couldn’t even climb a flight of stairs like a normal healthy adult. I was desperate, so even though I’d hated exercise all my life I decided to give it a shot.
My results far exceeded my expectations. Over the next few years my knee mobility improved and my pain started to subside, my strength and functionality returned, and I started seeing health improvements in areas I’d never considered could be connected to fitness. I lost 80 pounds and have maintained that loss for over three years, all my symptoms of metabolic syndrome and PCOS resolved, and my depression and anxiety went away. Poof! All better. I became so fascinated with the far reaching effects strength training was having on my health and well being that I began researching the subject in earnest. For me, this has never been about aesthetics, which is the reason most people seek out the weight room at their gym. The health benefits of strength training are what got me involved and what keep me engaged. I’m going to discuss a few of them here.
Strength Training can reduce your body fat, even if you don’t lose weight. Strength training builds muscle, and if you increase your muscle mass while maintaining your weight, your body fat will drop proportionally. We’re all familiar with the aesthetic result of reduced body fat, but there are significant objective health benefits as well! Excess body fat produces estrogen1 and may contribute to estrogen dominance symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, infertility, depression, and, some say, metabolic dysfunction and even cancer. Body fat also produces proinflammatory cytokines and hormones that drive chronic inflammation.2 More on the risks of chronic inflammation in a moment.
Strength training can mitigate the pain and dysfunction of arthritis. Both Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis have been shown to respond favorably to strength training protocols. Just 8 weeks of strength training can produce significant improvements in pain, function, walking time and muscle torque.3 Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis can experience similar, significant improvements in pain, strength and fatigue.4
Strength training can increase your bone mineral density and slow or prevent osteoporosis. As we age, our bones can begin to demineralize and weaken. Hip fracture is a leading indirect cause of death in older women, and weakened bones are far more likely to fracture in a fall. Strength training, by stressing the bones, can significantly slow or even prevent the process of bone deterioration and it’s subsequent risks.5, 6
Strength training can increase your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). Your RMR is the amount of energy your body expends at rest. Strength training, by increasing your muscle mass (which burns more energy at rest than fat mass does), raises your metabolic rate. One small study done on older adults showed a 15% increase in RMR after only 12 weeks of strength training.7, 8 A 15% increase in energy expenditure can translate to 300 calories a day for an average adult woman. The effect on younger adults would presumably be even greater, as younger people build muscle faster due to higher levels of human growth hormone.9 The immediate benefit of all this is pretty obvious (you get to eat more food to maintain your weight. More food: YAY!), but the more significant benefit is that by eating more food, you provide your body with more nutrition. More protein, more micronutrients, more of all the things your body needs to stay healthy and strong. Food is good! More food is better! As Matt Stone would say, Eat The Food!
Strength training can increase your insulin sensitivity.10, 11, 12, 13 Exercise in any form has been shown again and again to improve insulin sensitivity by altering the cells’ ability to respond to insulin and to metabolize glucose, but strength training, in addition to the benefits of the actual physical activity it provides, also works by increasing the body’s total fat free mass, thereby bolstering the body’s glycogen storage ‘tank’.14 In other words, more muscle gives your body more space to put glycogen, so it doesn’t end up running amok in your bloodstream.
Strength training can reduce chronic low-grade inflammation. Inflammation has been associated with increased risk of a whole host of diseases from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. Strength training can favorably impact levels of C-reactive protein and adiponectin, two biomarkers of inflammation.15 This effect is most likely due to a decrease in body fat levels.
Strength training also has numerous Quality of Life benefits that shouldn’t be dismissed…
Strength training is a potent pain killer. One study showed a significant increase in subjects’ pain threshold after a session of resistance exercises16, and the ability of strength training to reduce chronic neck and shoulder pain has been well documented.17, 18
Strength training, like all forms of exercise, can relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.19, 20 This is likely due to a combination of factors: increased ease of accomplishing activities of daily living, less pain, increased self-efficacy and confidence, improved body image, and better hormonal function leading to improved health.
Strength training can slow cognitive decline.21 This is likely due to improved glucose control and insulin sensitivity22 (you’ve probably heard Alzheimers’ Disease referred to as Type 3 Diabetes due to the suggested link between metabolic dysfunction and cognitive decline).
Strength training teaches you how your body works mechanically. Understanding how your body moves and how to utilize the power of momentum to do work translates to a real world ability to accomplish day-to-day tasks with greater ease and efficacy. For instance: squatting in the gym taught me how to climb stairs without pain, a skill I share with my senior clients who struggle with arthritis.
I know not everyone is enthusiastic about strength training, and some of my women clients are downright resistant to it in the beginning. It doesn’t take much time in the weight room, however, to reap some serious benefits. Just two sessions a week, consisting of just a few compound exercises, can lead to major improvements in functionality, health, and quality of life. You’ll get stronger, age slower, and be able to eat more. Win, win, win!
180DegreeHealth articles on Strength Training:
1. Estrogen production and action. Nelson LR, Bulun SE. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2001 Sep;45(3 Suppl):S116-24. Review.
2. Wisse, Brent E. “The inflammatory syndrome: the role of adipose tissue cytokines in metabolic disorders linked to obesity.” Journal of the American Society of Nephrology 15.11 (2004): 2792-2800.
3. Jan, Mei-Hwa, et al. “Investigation of clinical effects of high-and low-resistance training for patients with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial.” Physical Therapy 88.4 (2008): 427-436.
4. Rall, Laura C., et al. “The effect of progressive resistance training in rheumatoid arthritis. Increased strength without changes in energy balance or body composition.” Arthritis & Rheumatism 39.3 (2005): 415-426.
5. Kerr, D., Ackland, T., Maslen, B., Morton, A. and Prince, R. (2001), Resistance Training over 2 Years Increases Bone Mass in Calcium-Replete Postmenopausal Women. J Bone Miner Res, 16: 175–181. doi: 10.1359/jbmr.2001.16.1.175
6. Lohman, T., Going, S., Hall, M., Ritenbaugh, C., Bare, L., Hill, A., Houtkooper, L., Aickin, M., Boyden, T. and Pamenter, R. (1995), Effects of resistance training on regional and total bone mineral density in premenopausal women: A randomized prospective study. J Bone Miner Res, 10: 1015–1024. doi: 10.1002/jbmr.5650100705
7. Campbell, Wayne W., et al. “Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 60.2 (1994): 167-175.
8. Byrne, H. K., and J. H. Wilmore. “The effects of a 20-week exercise training program on resting metabolic rate in previously sedentary, moderately obese women.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 11.1 (2001): 15.
9. Craig, B. W., R. Brown, and J. Everhart. “Effects of progressive resistance training on growth hormone and testosterone levels in young and elderly subjects.” Mechanisms of ageing and development 49.2 (1989): 159-169.
10. Ryan, Alice S., et al. “Resistive training increases insulin action in postmenopausal women.” The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 51.5 (1996): M199.
11. Misra, Anoop, et al. “Effect of supervised progressive resistance-exercise training protocol on insulin sensitivity, glycemia, lipids, and body composition in Asian Indians with type 2 diabetes.” Diabetes Care 31.7 (2008): 1282-1287.
12. Castaneda C, Layne JE, Munoz-Orians L, Gordon PL, Walsmith J, Foldvari M, Roubenoff R, Tucker KL, Nelson ME. A randomized controlled trial of resistance exercise training to improve glycemic control in older adults with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2002; 25: 2335–2341.
13. Dunstan DW, Daly RM, Owen N, Jolley D, De Courten M, Shaw J, Zimmet P. High-intensity resistance training improves glycemic control in older patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2002; 25: 1729–1736.
14. Poehlman, Eric T., et al. “Effects of resistance training and endurance training on insulin sensitivity in nonobese, young women: a controlled randomized trial.” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 85.7 (2000): 2463-2468.
15. Olson, T. P., et al. “Changes in inflammatory biomarkers following one-year of moderate resistance training in overweight women.” International journal of obesity 31.6 (2007): 996-1003.
16. Koltyn, K. F., and R. W. Arbogast. “Perception of pain after resistance exercise.” British journal of sports medicine 32.1 (1998): 20-24.
17. Ylinen, Jari, et al. “Active neck muscle training in the treatment of chronic neck pain in women.” JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association 289.19 (2003): 2509-2516.
18. Andersen, Lars L., et al. “Effect of two contrasting types of physical exercise on chronic neck muscle pain.” Arthritis Care & Research 59.1 (2008): 84-91.
19. Singh, Nalin A., et al. “A randomized controlled trial of high versus low intensity weight training versus general practitioner care for clinical depression in older adults.” The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 60.6 (2005): 768-776.
20. Singh, Nalin A., Karen M. Clements, and Maria A. Fiatarone. “A randomized controlled trial of progressive resistance training in depressed elders.” The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 52.1 (1997): M27.
21. Peig-Chiello, Pasqualina, et al. “The effects of resistance training on well-being and memory in elderly volunteers.” Age and ageing 27.4 (1998): 469-475.
22. Liu-Ambrose, Teresa, and Meghan G. Donaldson. “Exercise and cognition in older adults: is there a role for resistance training programmes?.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 43.1 (2009): 25-27.