A recent study of almost 30,000 older women followed for 12 years shows that those who did strength training had fewer deaths from heart attacks and all causes than those who did not lift weights (J Am Heart Assoc, Oct 31, 2017;6(11)). Another study that followed 80,306 adults for two years shows that people:
- doing strength training at least twice a week by lifting weights or using weight machines are at 20 percent reduced risk for dying from cancers and from all causes,
- doing aerobic exercise for 2.5 hours per week had a 20 percent reduced chance of dying from heart attacks and all causes, and
- doing both strength training and aerobic exercises had a 30 percent reduced rate of death from cancers and all causes (Am J Epidemiol, Dec 12, 2017).
Studies Supporting Weight Training Benefits for Your Heart
Men over 60 performed 12 weeks of resistance training involving bending and straightening the knees against resistance, three sets of 10 repetitions a day, two days a week. They increased their ability to move heavy weights by 16 percent and they had higher blood levels of nitric oxide, which relaxes and opens arteries to increase blood flow to the heart and helps to prevent heart attacks (Br J Sports Med, 2006 Oct; 40(10):867-9).
A study of 10,500 men who weight trained for 20 minutes a day showed that they gained far less belly fat over 12 years than their aerobic-exercising but non-weight lifting countrymen (Obesity, Feb 2015;23(2):461–467).
A study reviewing 13 placebo-controlled studies of the effect of lifting weights in later life on health showed reduced HBA1C (a blood test that measures cell damage caused by sugar stuck on cells), body fat and systolic blood pressure. Strength training did not affect total cholesterol, high-density cholesterol, low-density cholesterol, triglyceride or diastolic blood pressure (Sports Medicine, May 2010;40(5):397-415).
In 10 subjects tested after both intense resistance training and aerobic activity, there was increased blood flow to the heart and reduced blood pressure immediately after lifting heavy weights (J Strength & Conditioning Research, October 2010;24(10):2846-2852).
Strength training reduced heart attack risk factors in men who had already had a heart attack (Proc Bayl Univ Med Cent, Jul 2006;19(3):246–248).
Why Everyone Should Do Strength Training as They Age
You can expect to lose muscle size and strength as you age. Between 40 and 50 years of age, you lose more than eight percent of your muscle size. This loss increases to 15 percent per decade after age 75. The people who lose the most muscle usually are the least active, exercise the least and are the ones who die earliest. Older people who lose the most muscle are four times more likely be disabled, have difficulty walking, and need walkers and other mechanical devices tohelp them walk (Am J Epidemiol, 1998; 147(8):755–763).
Lack of exercise makes muscles smaller. If you inactivate a leg by putting it in a cast for just four days, you lose a significant amount of muscle size. However, contracting those muscles by stimulating them with an electric current delayed some of the loss of muscle size (Nutrition, Acta Physiol (Oxf), March 2014;210(3):628-41). Prolonged periods of inactivity due to bed rest, cut nerves, casting or even decreasing the force of gravity lead to loss of muscle tissue which causes insulin resistance, higher blood sugar levels and a tendency toward becoming diabetic (Med Hypotheses, 2007;69(2):310-21.
Loss of muscle decreases your ability to respond to insulin to increase your risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, heart attacks and premature death. A high rise in blood sugar after meals can damage every cell in your body. Resting muscles draw almost no sugar from the bloodstream and need insulin to draw the meager amount of sugar that they do draw.
However, contracting muscles draw sugar from the bloodstream and don’t even need insulin to do so. The larger the muscle, the more sugar it can draw to lower high blood sugar levels. Lifting weights enlarges muscles to help them draw more sugar from the bloodstream, which helps to prevent and treat diabetes with its increased susceptibility for heart attacks and premature death.
First, check with your doctor to make sure you do not have any conditions that will be harmed by exercise. Then join a gym and ask for instructions on how to use the weight-training machines. If you are middle-aged or older and want to start a weightlifting program to gain the health benefits of being stronger and having larger muscles, and at the same time, avoid the extremely high rate of injury in older weight lifters, you should not lift heavy weights when your muscles feel sore and are still damaged from your previous workout.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.