Why you Should Strength Train to Live Longer

When I first started lifting weights as young 16-year old I had no clue what I was doing but I understood why I wanted to start doing it. This was around the time that my body started filling out post puberty and I was starting to feel self-conscious about how I looked. Strength training for me was more about how I wanted to look rather than the performance or muscle gain element of it.

Nowadays, in my mid-forties weight or resistance training for me has taken on a completely different meaning. Now, it is about keeping strong and injury free so I can continue to enjoy my hobbies like gymnastics. It is also about having a plan in place for when I reach the age of menopause and bone density starts to diminish dramatically. According to Dr Peter Attia ‘Bone density diminishes on a parallel trajectory to muscle mass, peaking in our late twenties, before beginning a slow, steady decline”.

More importantly, as we age past 50 into our 60’s and 70’s the idea of having muscle on our frame is much like an insurance policy to protect our bone health and body. Why would you not want to armour yourself as much as possible against injury and physical frailty? From his research Dr Attia also discovered the mortality from a hip or femur fracture is staggering once you hit about the age of sixty-five. It varies by study, but ranges from 15 to 36 percent in one year – meaning that up to one-third of people over sixty-five who fracture their hip are dead within a year. Even if a person does not die from the injury, the setback can be the functional equivalent of death in terms of how much muscle mass and, hence, physical capacity is lost during the period of bed rest.

Some alarming statistics but also ones that can be reduced if we commit ourselves to a weekly resistance training regime. So what is resistance or strength training?

What is Resistance Training:

Resistance training also known as weight or strength training is the use of resistance to muscularly contract muscles. This can help us build strength, increase the size of our muscles (hypertrophy) or anaerobic endurance. Resistance training has been around since man and woman first inhabited earth. Although, it did look a little bit differently in those days. Cavemen and women used to rely on hunting and gathering as a form of survival, carrying large objects like rocks and trees to build shelters for protection which formed the basis of human evolution. These days being able to efficiently carry objects from one place to another is of a versatile benefit to our lifestyles. In my everyday life I am constantly picking up barbells, dumbell’s and kettlebells which keeps my grip strength strong and my body efficient. I like to constantly remind my class participants that a sign of ‘ageing’ is loss of your grip strength. Moreover, this can be demonstrated with difficulty opening jars and not being able to hang onto railings to save yourself from falling.
Whilst my participants all think I am joking and have a little laugh to themselves little do they know that truer words have not been spoken.
Dr Attia in his book ‘Outlive’ refers to a body of literature linking grip strength in midlife and beyond to decreased risk of mortality. Many studies suggest that grip strength – literally, how hard you can squeeze something with one hand – predicts how long you are likely to live, while low grip strength in the elderly is considered to a symptom of Sarcopenia (age related atrophy). In these studies, grip strength is likely acting as a proxy for overall muscle strength, but it is also a broader indicator of general robustness and the ability to protect yourself if you slip or lose balance. Some great ways to train grip strength is to do as I do start picking up barbells and other equipment or start hanging from some bars at the park or at the gym.

Types of Resistance Training:

When most of us think of resistance training, we think of traditional forms such as weights, plates, barbells and dumbells. Whilst this is a very effective method to build muscle mass (hypertrophy) there are many non-traditional forms of resistance training.

Covid saw a rise in the number of body weight programs being touted on the internet due to an equipment shortage and gyms being closed. Body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, hip extensions, push-ups, and pullups can be done anywhere from the comfort of your home to places far from home.

Other modalities of resistance training could involve the use of resistance bands, cable machines and even classes such as Yoga which involve contracting muscles for a period of time.

How to Start:

The importance of any weight-based program is seeking out the right type of help early. Invest in a Personal Trainer or an Exercise Scientist who can assess your biomechanics (how you move) and work around any injuries you might have. These programs will be tailored specifically to you, and your more likely to achieve your goals rather than aimlessly lifting weights with no idea of what you are doing.

Include in your program movements such as Functional Exercises such as pulls, squats, lunge, bend, push and twists. Functional exercises are designed to mimic everyday movements that we perform in our daily lives. These exercises might involve the use of swiss balls, cable machines, resistance bands or just body weight. Functional Exercises help us with everyday movements such as getting in and out of a car, bending down to pick something off the ground or storing something in an overhead locker.

Dr Attia recommends structuring your weight training around exercises that help improve the following:

  • Grip Strength – how hard you can grip something with your hands, which includes everything from your hands to your lats (the large muscles of your back). Almost all actions begin with the grip.
  • Attention to both eccentric and concentric loading for all movements, meaning when our muscles are shortening (concentric) and when they are lengthening (eccentric). In other words we need to be able to lift the weight up and lower it back down slowly and with control.
  • Pulling Motions – at all angles from overhead to in front of you, which also requires grip strength (eg. Pull ups and rows).
  • Hip Hinging Movements – such as the deadlift and squat, but also step-ups, hip thrusts and numerous other single leg variant exercises that strengthen the legs, glutes and lower back.
    Dr Attia focuses on these four foundational elements of strength because they are most relevant to his studies of his “Centenarian Decathlon’ (how to live to one hundred) – and also to living a fulfilling and active life in our later decades.

Strength training as well as any other exercise has the greatest power to determine how you will live out the rest of your life. There is a bucket load of data supporting the notion that even a fairly minimal amount of exercise can lengthen your life by several years. In his book ‘Outlive’ Dr Attia alludes to a powerful statistic around exercise mentioning that ‘going from zero weekly exercise to just 90 minutes per week can reduce your risk of dying from all causes by 14 per cent. It’s very hard to find a drug that can do that.”

Other Benefits:

It’s Anti-Ageing, from the age of thirty we start to lose muscle mass. An eighty year old man will have about forty percent less muscle tissue (measured across the quad) than he did at twenty five. On an aesthetic level, muscle loss can have a significant impact on influencing body shape. Low levels of lean muscle tissue can lead to poor posture, rounded shoulders and skin tone that looks saggy and weak. Plenty of research indicates that strength training over time improves body composition via increasing lean muscle tissue and decreasing fat mass.

It improves posture, individuals that regularly strength train have stronger stabilisers of the body such as the core and the glutes. People who exhibit good posture stand tall with their shoulders back which can also project an air of positivity and self-confidence.

It improves self-confidence and self-esteem, feeling strong and knowing you have done the hard work and dedicated the hours to get the results certainly makes you feel better about yourself. I’ve literally watched hundreds of clients transform their bodies and the way they feel about themselves thru the power of exercise and strength training. Whether it’s finally having the courage to wear a bikini or a swimsuit or a pair of shorts the outcome is always a healthier and happier individual.