Building muscle may be a common fitness goal amongst young bucks looking to bulk up, but the benefits of making gains don’t start and stop at a young age. On the contrary, strength training has the power to increase lifespan as well as healthspan, serving as a buffer against some of the common side effects of aging. So, regardless of your short-term fitness and physique goals, ramping up your muscle mass is a must-do for long-term health and well-being. Here, learn why building muscle is so essential for improving both the length of and quality of your life.
The Research Is In: Strength Training Helps You Live Longer
Adding plates to your barbell now can help you add years to your life later on, according to research. One 2022 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine linked just 60 minutes of muscle-strengthening activities per week with a 10 to 17 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and lung cancer. (The researchers found that strength training was most effective at lowering death risk when combined with regular aerobic activity.)
And while strength training is most effective at reducing the risk of death when practiced throughout an individual’s life, it’s never too late to start reaping its benefits. A recent study (also published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine) found that adults ages 66 to 76 who lifted weights once or twice per week had a nine percent lower risk of death from any cause than those who never stepped foot, cane, or walker into the weight room.
How Strength Training Improves Quality of Life As You Age
Strength training doesn’t just improve the length of your life, it can also improve the quality of it. Here’s how.
Sets Foundational Movement Patterns
One of the biggest reasons folks can no longer live independently as they age is that they become unable to safely execute movement patterns—like squatting, hinging, lunging, pushing, pulling, and rotating—that are essential to daily life. When someone loses the ability to squat, for example, they lose the ability to sit down onto the toilet, explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. Likewise, if an individual loses the ability to hinge towards the floor, they lose the ability to pick packages up off the ground, as well as any papers or pills they may drop on the floor.
As such, by becoming stronger and more resilient in these foundational movements, people can support their ability to live independently for longer. How to do it? Through regular practice of strength training exercises like the back squat, deadlift, shoulder press, and clean. “The body remembers the positions that we most often put it in,” explains Wickham. So, if you regularly train the movement patterns you need for life in the gym, it grooves movement-memory into the brain, he says.
Your move: Strength train the recommended two days per week (if not more) and put extra emphasis on compound movements that allow you to get stronger in these foundational patterns.
Strengthens Your Core
Made up of far more than six-pack abs, the core consists of all the muscles around your trunk between your chest and pelvis. “These muscles protect your internal organs, support your spine, and stabilize your ribs,” says online performance and nutrition coach Seamus Sullivan, C.S.C.S. As they are also located at the center of the body, they thus play an essential role in stability and balance.
“When your core is weak, you have less control of the abs, hips, and lumbar (think lower back) areas of the body and thus have less sound balance,” he explains. In action, this makes you more susceptible to falling if you trip, getting pulled off balance by a dog who spotted a squirrel, or stumbling when dodging an oncoming bike or car.
As you age, reducing your risk of falling is essential for preserving independence and overall well-being. “When you get older, falls can lead to big injuries such as a broken hip, which can lead to a replacement, months without movement, and in extreme cases, death itself,” says Sullivan. Indeed, research published in The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care found that elderly folks age 70 or older are much less likely to survive ground-level falls (essentially falls from a standing position) than younger people.
Some good news: Research suggests that just six months of strength training cuts the risk of falling in half.
Builds Stronger Bones
Hitting the weight room doesn’t just build up your muscles, it also builds up your bones. “Your muscles are attached to your bones, so when you use your muscles while you lift, they pull on your bones,” explains exercise physiologist Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. Cells called osteocytes feel this pulling and, in turn, send signals to other cells called osteoblasts, which are specialized cells that build up bone tissue. “So, as osteoblast activity increases, your bones get thicker and stronger in the areas that are under stress,” Gam shares.
In order for this bone-building process to take place, however, the stress placed on your bones has to be large enough for osteoblasts to get called into work. Progressive strength training with relatively heavy weights can provide that stimulus, according to research. One 2018 study published in the journal Endocrinology and Metabolism suggests that moving loads between 80 and 85 percent of your one-rep max at least twice per week is most effective at building strong muscles and bones at once.
As a general rule, you shouldn’t test your one-rep max until you’re at least six months into a strength training regime. If you’re new to weightlifting or don’t want to go through the rigamarole of testing your max effort, just lift as heavy as you can while maintaining sound form, recommends Gam.
Exercise does for your immune system what caffeine does for your brain: helps it function better. Indeed, research has found that active people are less likely to suffer from respiratory tract infections like colds and pneumonia, as well as bacterial infections.
Furthermore, active people also have less severe symptoms and recover faster when they do get sick, says Gam. One study published in British Journal of Sports Medicine compared individuals with upper respiratory tract infections, and found that those who exercise five days per week recovered twice as quickly as those who exercised one day (or less) per week.
“Each time you exercise, your body experiences it as a stress and mobilizes immune cells,” explains Gam. “Those immune cells are essentially ‘guarding’ your body from infections, looking for viruses and other harmful substances and fighting the ones they find.” This increased surveillance can last for several hours after the exercise session. Over time, this boost in immune function starts to make the whole immune system work better, so it can identify threats (like respiratory-virus-causing pathogens) and fight them more easily, she notes.
There’s a common misconception that strength training turns us into bona fide Tin Men, but research actually shows that strength training makes us more mobile. One 2017 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that three resistance training sessions a week can improve flexibility.
The reason for this: Strength training involves taking your joints through various ranges of motion, explains Gam. Over time, you gain access to a greater and greater range of motion in those movements, which translates to greater mobility, she says.
This greater mobility doesn’t just translate to deeper squats and better overhead positions in the gym. “Improving your mobility enables you to function more safely during daily activities now and as you age,” says Gam. “Simple things like getting dressed, brushing your hair, reaching items in cabinets, and even using the bathroom are easier when you have mobility.”
To maximize mobility gains, Wickham recommends adding a few minutes of dedicated mobility work to both your warm-up and cool-down routines. This work, he says, can include foam rolling, activation exercises, and isometric holds.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re 23 or 63, it’s time to get some weights in your hands! It’s never too late to start reaping the benefits (and boy are they significant) of a regular strength-training routine and the muscle building that comes along with it. Start with the recommended two sessions per week, focus on big, compound exercises like squats and presses, and build up from there as you make gains.