4 surprising health benefits of strength training

Adding a little resistance to your workout can help you stay strong and independent

You already know that pushups and leg lifts can help keep your muscles strong. But that’s far from the only reason to make time for strength training: Dusting off the old dumbbells can help reduce your risk of developing many chronic conditions.

According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, regular strength training (also known as resistance training) can help manage blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood cholesterol levels. It also helps prevent and control heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Plus, it’s shown to improve the symptoms of arthritis.

No wonder the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises adults over the age of 50 to do muscle-strengthening activities that engage all of the major muscle groups (including core, legs, shoulders, arms) at least twice a week.

What is strength training, exactly? Simply put, it’s when you use weights, resistance bands, a weight machine, or your own body weight to build muscle mass, strength and endurance.

But that’s not all that resistance training has going for it. Take a look at some of its hidden health superpowers for older adults.

Health benefit #1: Helps reduce your fall risk

Falls are the leading cause of injury in older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And maintaining your muscle mass as you age is crucial to staying steady on your feet, reports the National Institutes of Health.

“You need strength for balance and to decrease your fall risk,” says Robyn Phelps, a certified senior personal trainer. “But you also need endurance. If you wear out while you’re taking a walk, that can also increase your fall risk.”

Strength exercise to try: forward lunge

  • Stand tall with your feet together, hands on hips
  • Step forward with your right foot, planting it firmly on the floor
  • Bend both knees, creating two 90-degree angles with your legs (or go as low as you comfortably can)
  • Push through your right foot to return to standing
  • Complete 10 to 12 repetitions, then switch legs and repeat

Health benefit #2: Helps keep your bones healthy

Every time you take a step, press into a squat, or do a biceps curl, you’re putting stress on your bones. That routine action may increase your bone density and slowing down the rate of natural bone loss due to the aging process.

Strength exercise to try: squat

  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, and arms extended in front of you at shoulder level
  • Brace your core and keep it engaged for the entire move
  • Bend your knees and push your hips back
  • Pause when the back of your thighs are about parallel to the floor
  • Push through your heels to push yourself back up
  • Complete 10 to 12 repetitions

Health benefit #3: Helps boost your mood

One big bonus of strength training may be the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the brain’s “happy chemicals” that are released when you break a sweat.

Strength training also helps manage and relieve stress. Recent research reported in JAMA Psychiatry shows that people who regularly strength train report better sleep and depression symptoms are reduced.

In the 2018 report, researchers looked at 33 clinical trials to determine if resistance training might have a positive impact on depressive symptoms. Strength training, the researchers found, plays a significant role in improving low mood, feelings of worthlessness and loss of interest in activities.

Getting into a three-day-a-week strength routine is a good goal to target, based on findings from the report.

Strength exercise to try: step-up

  • Stand in front of a step or bench that’s below knee height
  • Place your right foot on the bench and step up
  • Pause, then step down
  • Complete 10 to 12 repetitions, then switch legs and repeat

Health benefit #4: Helps make easy work of daily tasks

Strong muscles are also key for better balance and safely performing routine activities such as climbing stairs and carrying groceries, says Phelps. She frequently works with clients who tell her they want to move through their day with more confidence and ease.

When it gets hard to get around, daily chores become more difficult. It’s important to take your time and break tasks down into chunks, Phelps says.

For example, if vacuuming is tiring, try working in segments with breaks in between. If you have several bags of groceries, bring them in one at a time with breaks in between. If bending over to pick items off the floor is hard, try to bend your knees more and bend your waist less.

Strength exercise to try: diagonal reach with ball

  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a ball straight overhead (a medicine ball, sports ball, or even a light dumbbell will work)
  • Squat down and bring the ball to the outside of your right knee
  • Push through your heels to stand back up and raise your arms overhead
  • Complete 10 to 12 repetitions, then switch sides and repeat

3 tips to get started

Another cool thing about strength training: It’s never too late to start — and you don’t need to join a gym to get going.

  1. Get your doctor’s okay if you’re new to exercising, have an existing health condition or are recovering from an injury.
  2. Start simple with body-weight exercises. This way you can focus on mastering correct form before adding weights or a resistance band.
  3. Practice patience. It can take a few weeks to feel comfortable with each move and see results.

Get ready to up your at-home fitness game

Check out these quick and easy tips for creating an at-home fitness routine to help you build muscle and stay strong.

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