We’ve all heard that cardio is good for longevity – but now new research is showing strength training could add years to your life.
Everyone knows that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health. But just how much we should be doing – and what type of exercise is best for longevity – remains constantly up for debate.
In a study published in September 2022 in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that people who took part in one hour of aerobic exercise a week had a 15 per cent lower mortality risk, while those who did three hours a week reduced their mortality risk by 27 per cent. But, interestingly, combining both aerobic exercise and one to two weekly strength training sessions a week was associated with an even lower mortality risk – a full 40 per cent lower than those who didn’t exercise at all.
Professor of human physiology at King’s College London, Stephen Harridge, who specialises in research on healthy human ageing, says we don’t know the exact mechanisms by which strength training may increase longevity, but what we do know is that regular strength training can have important benefits for healthy ageing.
“There is currently no drug or pharmaceutical agent that does what exercise does,” says Prof Harridge. “You could argue,” he says, “that as you get older, the strengthening component of any exercise programme should be increased because we’re progressively losing muscle. And if you can’t get up out of a chair, then you can’t go to your aerobics class.”
Furthermore, longevity shouldn’t be the only thing we strive for, says Prof Harridge. “I prefer the term ‘health span’ – the period of time when you’re independent and healthy.”
Fight back against muscle loss
“Resistance training can absolutely help to fend off the negative effects of ageing and diminishing muscle mass,” agrees personal trainer Alex Ward. “I train a lady who used to struggle to pull the boot lid down on her car, but she can now do it with ease. Another client came up to me recently and told me she can now do a whole day of gardening – these might not seem like big things, but they’re complete life changers and just show how strength training can give you a better quality of life.”
Su Latimer, 55, a frontline emergency medical technician for the London Ambulance Service, didn’t take up strength training until later in life and admits she was a bit of a “cardio junkie”. “I did a lot of swimming and running before, but no strength training,” she says. “I just thought if I were to strength train, I’d build up a lot of mass and become bulky and lose that feminine side.”
The fear that lifting weights will cause you to look ‘bulky’ or ‘too muscly’ is a common, and misleading, stereotype. But the misconception that weights are for men and cardio is for women is slowly changing.
“I started doing hybrid circuit training classes [that mix HIIT with strength training] at my gym, Sweat Society, and I began to notice the benefits,” says Latimer. “ I work for the London Ambulance Service, and it’s important to have good core strength for lifting patients.”
Not only has she noticed the effect of strength training on her job, but she’s also noticed physical and mental changes too; “I always had a little wine belly pouch, but that’s gone. I ran purely because I wanted to lose weight. But I look better now with a little bit of muscle mass – and I’ve got better at running, too, thanks to the stronger muscles in my legs.”
She is also taking fewer sick days. “With the job I do, I am exposed to bugs, bacteria and everything on a daily basis, but now I bounce back really quickly.”
Latimer isn’t alone in noticing this benefit. Recent research suggests that people who work out have stronger immune systems, with higher numbers of bug-fighting immune cells in their blood. “Generally speaking, most people who are inactive have a suboptimal immune system,” explains Prof Harridge. “Exercise can improve that.”
How much strength training should we be doing?
Latimer works out roughly three times a week – either two strength-specific sessions and one hybrid cardio class, or the other way around. Her advice for anyone else in their 50s who’s feeling wary of starting a new workout regime, or picking up weights for the first time? Keep it light and easy, to begin with.
“Lots of fitness studios offer ‘drop-in’ classes – so you don’t have to commit to a full membership and put unnecessary pressure on yourself,” she explains. “I really like the small group class dynamic and having an instructor guide you around the exercises – it takes away that element of fear. If you just walk into the weights section of the gym and you don’t know what you’re meant to be doing, it can be overwhelming. You think; am I supposed to be doing higher reps? More weight? Less weight? So I really like classes.”
But if you’re brand new to strength training, you don’t necessarily need to venture into the gym, says Ward. “You can do resistance exercises at home – you can either just use your body weight or get something simple like a TRX (device with straps that assist with exercises).”
Ward suggests starting with just one workout a week. “It’s been proven in studies that you can gain results from just one session a week. Obviously, as you improve, I would suggest increasing to two sessions a week. But you really don’t need to be doing more than seven exercises within a session – and I would always recommend full-body, compound exercises that use multiple muscle groups – so squats, deadlifts (ie lifting weights), pushing and pulling movements.” The main thing is that you just start.