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Health Tips & Advice

Can Strength Training Help You Live Longer?

Dr. Andrew Miners, Medcan’s Clinical & Product Director of Sports Medicine, Therapy, Rehabilitation and Fitness

New research shows that a fitness routine that combines aerobic exercise with resistance training can increase longevity in those 65 and older.

Every day at Medcan, I talk about the multifaceted benefits of exercise with my patients. A wealth of research suggests aerobic fitness, which comes from physical activity that taxes the cardiorespiratory system, such as running, cycling or swimming, can prevent disease and extend lifespan. As a chiropractor, an expert in sports medicine and a weightlifter myself, I encourage my patients to also incorporate strength training into their fitness regimens to improve strength, but also to train range of motion, challenge their aerobic fitness, and to assist in injury avoidance as they age.

Now there’s even more reason to follow this balanced approach—particularly as you get older. New research suggests that weight lifting in addition to cardio training is associated with reducing all-cause mortality in people aged 65 or older—especially women. It’s the first study of its kind to indicate that adding weight lifting to aerobic exercise can extend one’s life—and it’s big news.  

Groundbreaking New Research about Strength Training 

The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, looked at the fitness and strength training habits of over 100,000 individuals to determine cardio and weight lifting’s effect on death. It used data from the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial—a large, randomized, controlled trial of cancer screening tests that began in 1993, using questionnaires to track participants’ lifestyle habits, then following them over time. Researchers were then able to analyze the way certain behaviours affected lifespan and other health outcomes. By the time they were asked about their weightlifting habits in 2006, the average age of the approximately 100,000 respondents was about 71. This group was then followed for 10 years, to 2016.  

“This study is very relevant for older adults—which is generally an underrepresented group,” says Dr. Jess Gorzelitz, study lead, epidemiologist, assistant professor and director of the Gorzelitz Physical Activity and Cancer Survivorship Lab at the University of Iowa. 

Participants in the study who reported regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity had a 32% lower risk of all-cause mortality. That’s definitely reason enough to get moving. And the big news was that a combination of aerobic activity and weight lifting was associated with up to a 47% lower risk of all-cause mortality.  

The study also found that women benefit more from strength training than men. “It could be related to body composition or to bone density,” suggests Dr. Gorzelitz. “We know that women who have stronger muscles have stronger bones… if they fall, they have a lower risk of death from any cause.” 

Benefits of Strength Training 

After the age of 30, muscle mass decreases at a rate of 3-8% per decade—and that rate declines even further after the age of 60. Strength training can stave off that age-related decline in lean muscle mass. It helps reduce mortality risk, and also helps ensure you retain functional independence and strength. “This isn’t just being in the gym,” says Dr. Gorzelitz. “This is carrying your groceries up the steps with ease, getting on and off the floor to play with your grandkids, or being able to hold your hands over your head to change a light bulb for 20 minutes.”  

Your muscles make up one of the largest organ groups in your body, so engaging in resistance activities that build muscle strength and endurance can also help prevent serious and sometimes fatal conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, or diabetes.  

“It’s quite possible that the effect of weightlifting is due in part to social nature,” adds Dr. Gorzelitz. Having a sense of community and belonging can help lower your risk of all-cause mortality, no matter your socioeconomic status. Those are good reasons to lift weights with a friend, or join a strength-training class.  

How To Start Strength Training  

It’s never too late to start strength training. If you’re just beginning, start with lighter weights and fewer repetitions, then build slowly and gradually. “Some is better than none,” says Dr. Gorzelitz.  

Looking to get started right now? Follow along as Medcan trainer Alex Marquez demonstrates Dr. Gorzelitz’ favourite resistance exercises for older adults. 

The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines recommend that people aged 65 or older should engage in “muscle strengthening activities using major muscle groups at least twice a week.” If you’re feeling unmotivated, remind yourself that following this cardio and resistance training approach is associated with that 47% reduction in mortality risk. That’s a great incentive to keep moving—and lifting those weights.  

If you’d like Medcan’s help to develop a personalized fitness plan that includes strength training, contact a member of Medcan’s fitness team at Fitness@Medcan.com 

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