What can you add to your exercise program to potentially help you live longer? Well, weight for it…weight for it…weight training for it. Or strength training in general. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that regularly adding 30 to 60 minutes of strength training to your week may be associated with a 10% to 20% decrease in the risk of early death.
Now a meta-analysis is not an analysis of Mark Zukerberg’s next business moves. It’s not a contraction of “met a” as in “I never met a single cohort study that alone was enough to answer a key scientific question” either. Instead, it’s when you search for, assemble, synthesize, and perform statistical analyses on all of the available scientific studies addressing a particular scientific question. In this case, the particular question was how do muscle-strengthening activities correlate with different key health outcomes. The types of studies assembled were prospective cohort studies of healthy adults (i.e., age 18 years and older). The research team who conducted the meta-analysis haled from Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine (Haruki Momma), Waseda University (Ryoko Kawakami and Susumu S. Sawada), and Kyushu University Graduate School of Medical Sciences (Takanori Honda).
Ultimately, they found 16 different studies from the U.S., England, Scotland, Australia, and Japan that met their search and eligibility criteria with most of the studies being from the U.S. The smallest study had 3,809 participants and the largest 479,856. Study participants ranged in age from 18 to 97.8 years. There wasn’t an obvious skew in sexes with 12 studies consisting of both men and women, two having just men, and three involving only women.
The research team found an association between 30 to 60 minutes per week of muscle-strengthening activities and a 10% to 20% decrease in the risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. Note that this was for all types of cancer combined as they didn’t find relationships with specific cancers such as colon, kidney, bladder and pancreatic cancers. Benefits seemed to max out at around 60 minutes per week with relatively fewer gains beyond that frequency threshold. So it may not be beneficial to incorporate bicep curls into all of your activities such as between bites during a dinner date or between questions during a job interview.
Things got even better when any amount of aerobic activity was added to the 30 to 60 minutes of muscle-strengthening activities. This was associated with a 40% lower likelihood of premature death, 46% lower likelihood of heart disease and 28% lower likelihood of dying from cancer. So if you are going to lift heavy bags of money or gold, you may want to consider running with them as well. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to the muscle-strengthening activities and aerobic activities simultaneously and can do them separately, unless extenuating circumstances such as someone running after you merit so.
Of course, it’s not clear what the “strength” of such associations may really be. A cohort study follows what happens over time to groups of people otherwise known as cohorts. Researchers can’t determine every single thing that may happen to a cohort during the study period. Therefore, there could be factors that confound any results. Such a study design can only show associations and not cause and effect.
Nevertheless, it would not be completely surprising for strength training to have life-prolonging benefits. Strengthening your muscles can help your body and mind in multiple ways. Muscle mass can burn calories at a faster rate and better regulate glucose metabolism than fat mass. Stronger muscles can better support the rest of your body, improving coordination and protecting against damage and injury. There may be other intermediate benefits as well. For example, a study presented at the recent American Heart Association Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference found that people started on a resistance exercise program experienced on average a 40-minute-increase in their sleep duration compared to the 23 minute-increase among those started on an aerobic exercise program and a 15-minute-increase in the control group.
If you think about it, 30 to 60 minutes a week is not that much time. That comes out to under 10 minutes a day. That’s probably not too much different from the duration of the average bathroom trip, depending on how much toilet paper and plunger use happen to be involved.
You don’t need a whole gym or some fancy equipment to do weight-training, resistance-training, or any other types of strengthening exercises. All you need are some hand weights or some resistance bands or both. For example, a pair of dumbbells will do. You can use the dumbbells, meaning weights, to do shoulder presses, curls, lifts, deadlifts, weighted crunches, and other muscle building and toning exercises.
In fact, during the earlier days of the pandemic, Sabrina Strickland, MD, an Associate Attending Orthopedic Surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), offered some at-home suggestions in the following HSS video:
Just make sure the resistance bands are real resistance bands and not something that could snap such as underwear elastic bands. Otherwise, your body parts may go flying in different directions, leaving you and your underwear pieces in a bad situation. Of course, any such program should involve as many major muscle groups as possible such as your upper extremities, core, and lower extremities. You don’t want to be like a Tyrannosaurus rex and have certain parts of you seem overdeveloped and others underdeveloped. Therefore, make sure that you have the appropriate mix of squats, presses, lifts, and other exercises where you are moving your body against weight, resistance, or gravity.
Regardless of the strength of the associations with life expectancy, it can’t hurt to do strength training, as you do it safely and don’t overdo it. So if you haven’t yet incorporated any strength training into your weekly routine, don’t wait for it.