Research indicates that strength training provides many of the same benefits as cardio fitness, along with a few extras.
Age-Related Muscle Loss
Most people lose approximately 2% of their muscle each year starting somewhere in their 30s. Muscle loss leads to all sorts of problems, from reduced strength and mobility to increased risk of obesity and diabetes to greater likelihood of falling. Strength trainers are more likely to enjoy a higher quality of life in their later years because they maintain or even increase muscle while reducing fat. This is why strength trainers tend to look better as they age; they maintain firmer, more streamlined bodies with better muscle tone and less flab.
Osteoporosis (Bone Loss)
Strength training is the most effective way to maintain strong bones in old age. Stressing the muscles also stresses the bones, which causes them to become denser and stronger and decreases the likelihood of suffering from the fractures and disability associated with osteoporosis as you get older. This is particularly important for women, who are at greater risk for osteoporosis.
Because strength training improves coordination, increases joint strength and stability, increases bone density, and strengthens muscles, it reduces the risk that you’ll suffer a fall, as well as the likelihood of serious injury and resulting disability if you do fall. This can make a huge difference to quality of life, particularly in old age.
Strength training can help to reduce blood pressure, which decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke. This protective effect has been found in so many studies that the American Heart Association now recommends strength training for patients in cardiac rehabilitation programs.
Strength training reduces the risk of developing diabetes, as well as helping those who already have it to better regulate their insulin and glucose levels.
Research has shown that whole-body strength training is a great way to reduce chronic lower back pain, as well as easing pain associated with conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis. A study of older adults found that after 16 weeks of strength training, pain from severe osteoarthritis (knee) was decreased by 43%. Similar effects have been found with rheumatoid arthritis. Overall, symptom relief was as good as or better than that achieved with medications. (If using strength training as a chronic pain treatment, consult a doctor before starting your program, as there may be certain exercises you should avoid.)
Strength training helps to maintain and even enhance cognitive abilities as you age, and reduces the risk of dementia.
By improving body composition and other aspects of health and fitness, strength training decreases the risk of certain cancers. A study that followed nearly 9,000 men between the ages of 20 and 82 over more than two decades found that those who regularly engaged in strength training and had the strongest muscles were 30-40% less likely to die of cancer. The protective effect of strength training was seen even in study participants classified as overweight.
Those who strength train on a regular basis sleep better and are less likely to suffer from insomnia. Sleep benefits of strength training are comparable to those obtained with medication, but without the side effects.
Studies have found that strength training can be as effective in treating depression as antidepressant medications. Researchers don’t yet know whether this is because strength training causes biochemical changes in the brain or because people just feel better psychologically when their bodies are fitter and stronger, but regardless of the mechanism, regular exercise is a highly effective treatment.
Strength training increases overall stamina. If you strength train regularly, you will be less inclined to fatigue, especially as you grow older.
Strength training can increase your metabolism by up to 15%, which will cause you to burn more calories even when resting. Muscle requires more calories to maintain than fat, so those with bigger muscles can eat more without gaining weight and lose fat more easily.
For answers to more frequently asked strength training and health questions, see the main Mind-Body Health and Fitness page.
- American Council on Exercise. (2015). 7 Benefits of Heavy Resistance Training. ACEFitness.org.
- Baker, J. S., Davies, B., Cooper, S. M., Wong, D. P., Buchan, D. S., & Kilgore, L. (2013). Strength and body composition changes in recreationally strength-trained individuals: comparison of one versus three sets resistance-training programmes. BioMed Research International.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2007). Why Strength Training? CDC.gov.
- Cleveland Clinic. (2014). Cardio vs. Resistance Training: Which Is Healthier? Health.ClevelandClinic.org.
- Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. Primary Care Companion to the Journal Of Clinical Psychiatry, 6(3), 104-111.
- Fahey, T. (2005). Weight Training Basics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Harvard Medical School. (2015). Strength training builds more than muscles. Health.Harvard.edu.
- Hutchinson, A., PhD. (2011). Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. HarperCollins.
- Kravitz, L., PhD. (n.d.). Resistance Training: Adaptations and Health Implications. UNM.edu.
- The Mayo Clinic. (2006). Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner and Healthier. TheMayoClinic.org.
- The Mayo Clinic. (2016). Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier.
- The Telegraph. (2009). Men with big muscles cut cancer risk by 40 per cent. May 23.
- Westcott, W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 11(4), 209-216.
- Winett, R. A., & Carpinelli, R. N. (2001). Potential health-related benefits of resistance training. Preventive Medicine, 33(5), 503-513.