Most people only think about muscular strength as serving a simple purpose: being strong, whether that’s for lifting heavy at the gym, competing in CrossFit competitions, or being able to carry all your groceries inside in a single trip. However, muscular strength has benefits beyond lifting heavy things or looking a certain way. In fact, more and more research is finding that muscular strength becomes crucial as you age and improves longevity and independence throughout your life.
Here, learn more about why muscles are important to your overall, lasting health.
The Benefits of Muscular Strength
Clearly, muscular strength makes it easier to lift heavy things and move with ease — both important functions in maintaining an independent, injury-free life.
First, having strong muscles carries over into having strong bones. As you age, your bones naturally become less dense, which increases the risk of broken bones and osteoporosis (a bone disease that develops when bone mineral density and bone mass decreases, or when the structure and strength of bone changes). Osteoporosis is unfortunately quite common, affecting an estimated eight million women and two million men in the United States and resulting in two million broken bones per year. Another related condition, sarcopenia, occurs when accelerated muscle loss results in the inability to function and perform daily tasks, such as getting dressed, standing up, or doing household chores. Sarcopenia is accompanied by inflammation throughout the body, in addition to bone disorders.
Building muscular strength via strength training helps combat weak, brittle bones and inflammation due to sarcopenia. That’s because strength training helps slow bone density loss and helps build bones, as lifting puts stress on bones that stimulates bone-building cells. And stronger bones are crucial for healthy, independent aging.
Also, building muscle can assist with glucose management in people with or without diabetes. In strength training workouts, your body uses muscle glycogen for fuel. Once those stores are empty, your body seeks out glycogen in the liver and the blood, which results in lower blood sugar and freeing up room for glycogen from future meals. Plus, you store the sugar and carbs you eat in your muscles, and when those muscles are strong, they’re able to store more blood glucose in the form of glycogen. The result: lower blood sugar levels and less insulin resistance.
Finally, strength training can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. Research has found that six months of strength training via lifting weights can protect the brain from degeneration in areas that are specifically affected by Alzheimer’s, such as the hippocampus. Translation: Strength training doesn’t just train your muscles, it trains your brain as well.
How to Strength Train for Longevity
While you may burn more calories during a cardio workout (such as running, cycling, or rowing), strength training is necessary for muscular growth. Cardio workouts are a form of aerobic exercise, in which your movements are fueled by oxygen. Strength training is anaerobic exercise, in which the fuel comes from glycogen stored in your muscles, and it’s how you gain or maintain muscle mass as you challenge your muscles with higher levels of resistance.
The CDC recommends strength training at least two times per week, in addition to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity. Strength training, also known as resistance training, can be done in the gym or at home with minimal equipment. If you’re brand-new to strength training, you can start with bodyweight exercises such as squats, push-ups, lunges, and planks to build strength and perfect your form. You can also use resistance bands, which are portable, convenient, and cheaper than other strength training equipment. At the gym, you can use dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and strength training machines to challenge your muscles and build strength.
If you’re just starting out, aim to do total-body strength workouts a couple of times a week. Then, as you progress, you can add 1-2 extra days in and split your workouts into two days of upper body work and two days of lower body work to further focus your training. Work with your medical professional or health coach to come up with a strength training routine that works for your goals.
You may lift weights three or four times a week, but you’ll need to complement your efforts in the gym with diet and recovery. The biggest issue for many adults is getting enough protein to support muscular growth. When you strength train, you’re actually breaking down your muscles (which are made of protein); lifting weights or stressing your muscles causes microtears in the muscle tissue. Your body then heals that tissue by making new protein as you recover from the workout, and that healing is what causes muscle growth. And when you eat protein, your body breaks the protein down into amino acids, which are then used to repair and grow new muscle fibers. In summary, you’ll need to take in enough protein after a workout to speed recovery and muscle growth.
Protein mostly comes from animal products, such as beef, chicken, eggs, and fish. You can also get protein from chickpeas, Greek yogurt, and other plant-based products. Focus your diet on clean protein, like grass-fed beef or other pasture-raised protein sources (these options offer more “good” fats and less “bad” fats, plus more antioxidants and without any added hormones or antibiotics). Talk to your health coach or medical professional to find the best diet for you based on your genetics.