We all know that exercise can have positive impacts on a person’s health. Doctors often recommend to their sedentary patients that they incorporate some form of movement into their daily activities. But people who are new to exercise, especially women, tend to default to aerobic activity, some of which include running, elliptical, spinning, and other forms of exercise involving cardiovascular machines. Aerobic exercise is seen by many as the fat-burning, heart-healthy form of exercise. Not only that, it also seems like the simplest to do. If someone wants to run, they run; it seems pretty straightforward, right? It is because of this that some people tend to want to start with aerobic exercise, especially if they have weight loss goals, and I understand this mode of thinking. I am not here to speak negatively of any type of exercise, but to share with you some of the benefits of an activity that is gaining popularity in the mainstream health industry, but is still, in my opinion, greatly underrated. I want to explain why I love resistance training and why I think that the majority of people in any developed country can benefit from it.
First let us define what resistance training is. Resistance training is a form of exercise that involves physical exertion against an opposing force, which causes muscular contraction, potentially leading to an increase in muscular strength, size, definition, and/or endurance. Some forms of resistance training include, body-weight exercises, banded exercises, and weight training. One thing that makes resistance training superior to other forms of exercise is that it can be adjusted to anyone’s needs/goals. For example, someone with chronic knee pain can use resistance exercises to reduce/eliminate the pain, just as someone who wants bigger biceps can use a different resistance exercise to grow that muscle group. Every person has bio-individual needs, and resistance training can be used to address a variety of those needs.
So apart from what’s already been stated, what are some benefits to strength training? In regards to our primarily sedentary modern life, it can have enormous benefits. Many people sit down at a desk for 8 hours per day, and follow it up with dinner and screen time until it is time to sleep. This poses a problem because human beings evolved hunting and performing numerous physical exertions in order to obtain sustenance, and only recently have we been exposed to an abundance of food. So over that last several thousand years, we have drastically reduced our physical activity levels while our access to plentiful food has increased significantly. Resistance training is a great way to combat this because it increases metabolic rate by helping to increase and maintain muscle mass. Muscle mass requires energy (meaning calories) to build and to maintain, making it a great form of exercise for modern life. On the contrary, chronic steady state cardiovascular exercise can have the opposite effect. While strength training can increase the metabolism, doing consistent long-distance aerobic exercise can decrease a person’s metabolism over time as an attempt to preserve energy. This in the absence of strength training can decrease muscle mass and further decrease metabolic rate. We need faster metabolisms if we are going to be working on computers for hours at a time and celebrating holidays and special occasions with plentiful food.
Another benefit of resistance training is its potential to increase glucose tolerance, meaning that it can improve the way that your body metabolizes and utilizes carbohydrates, by increasing muscle mass. Today we face a blood sugar deregulation epidemic which shows itself as hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. Some studies have also identified a link between Alzheimer’s disease and blood sugar irregularities, which has led some researchers to begin unofficially referring to the illness as “type 3 diabetes”. Numerous studies have shown that muscle mass is inversely related to insulin resistance, meaning that people with more muscle mass are less likely to be insulin resistant. Some research has even shown that resistance exercise itself can have an immediate effect on a person’s ability to utilize glucose, which means that simply performing a workout that involves resistance exercises can make you more insulin sensitive for several hours after the workout.
Along with blood sugar irregularities, we are also facing an obesity crisis across the country. People are storing large amounts of body fat and suffering the consequences of it. Weight lifting has been shown to prevent increases in waist circumference even more so than aerobic exercise. A bigger waist circumference indicates more fat storage around vital organs and can increase the risk of developing serious illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some studies have compared the effects of resistance training versus those of aerobic exercise on fat mass, and have shown that overweight individuals who strength train tend to lose more fat mass than those who perform aerobic training.
Resistance training can also help protect our bones by preserving and potentially building bone density. Some studies indicate that people that partake in resistance exercise have less bone mineral density reduction than those who are sedentary and those who stick to aerobic exercise alone. This is important for older individuals to consider because of the fact that the integrity of our bones is reduced as we age, making us more prone to illnesses like osteoporosis as we get older. Increases in muscle mass and strength can help relieve some of the pressure that is placed on joints and bone tissue and therefore reduce their degradation, and thus reduce the risk of injury, especially for the elderly.
People that partake in resistance training can also experience cognitive and mental benefits from it. Some studies have indicated that moderate-intensity resistance training can significantly reduce symptoms of both anxiety and depression, which are both common mental disorders in the U.S. population. Resistance training has also been shown to improve sleep patterns, self-esteem, and cognitive function. Some studies have also indicated that resistance training can help improve memory and memory-related tasks and can have cognitive benefits for those that are at risk of developing dementia.
With all of that said, I do not want to downplay the benefits of aerobic/cardiovascular exercise. I do believe that a healthy and adequate person is better off participating in both strength training and aerobic training. I simply want to bring to light some of the wonderful effects that resistance training can have on a person’s health in hope that more people will be inclined to partaking in it as their primary source of exercise for their health and longevity-related endeavors.
I would also like to note that, just as with any form of exercise, there is a risk of injury when resistance training is not done properly, and the risk increases as the resistance (e.g. heavy weight) increases. This makes it extremely important for people to learn about how to properly perform certain movements/exercises before challenging themselves with heavier weight. I would recommend that beginners work with a trainer or someone with experience before placing themselves underneath a heavy barbell and attempting to squat. Nothing trumps progress like being obligated to be sedentary because of an injury.