A new study from the University of Sydney in Australia suggests that exercises that promote muscular strength may be just as important for maintaining health as aerobic exercise. In fact, they may help lower the risk of all-cause and cancer-related death.
Strength-building exercises, such as weight lifting, push-ups, and squats, can sometimes seem less attractive than aerobic activities — such as running, swimming, or cycling — because they are more intense and demanding.
Additionally, aerobic exercise has received many accolades over the years, as numerous studies pointed out its various health benefits, including improved executive functioning and cardiovascular fitness.
Recently, however, more researchers are turning their attention to strength-focused workouts, investigating how they relate to health and well-being.
A new study from the University of Sydney, led by Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis —associate professor in the School of Public Health and the Charles Perkins Centre — suggests that strength exercises are just as important as aerobics, and they may even be tied with a reduced risk of all-cause and cancer-related death.
The study's findings were recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Strength training tied to lower death risk
Dr. Stamatakis and colleagues' study analyzed data sourced from a core population sample of 80,306 adults aged 30 years and over. The information came from the Health Survey for England, as well as the Scottish Health Survey, and it was supplemented with data from the NHS Central Mortality Register.
Although this was an observational study, the researchers ensured that the results would be consistent by adjusting for confounding variables, including age, biological sex, overall health condition, educational levels, and lifestyle-related behaviors.
Participants with a previously diagnosed cardiovascular disease or cancer, as well as participants who died within the first 2 years of the study were excluded from the analysis.
Dr. Stamatakis and team found that individuals who engaged in strength exercises had a 23 percent lower risk of death by all causes, and a 31 percent lower risk of cancer-related death.
"The study shows exercise that promotes muscular strength may be just as important for health as aerobic activities like jogging or cycling," explains Dr. Stamatakis.
It is not yet clear if the relationship is causal, but the researchers think that these findings are enough to warrant more encouragement for people to practice strength workouts.
"[A]ssuming our findings reflect cause and effect relationships," Dr Stamatakis adds, "it [strength training] may be even more vital when it comes to reducing risk of death from cancer."
'Anyone can do classic strength exercises'
According to the lead researchers, public health authorities should put more effort into promoting strength-based exercise. They also point out that the general population is already missing the recommended physical activity target which, in itself, is a cause for concern.
Dr. Stamatakis points to data revealed by the Australian National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, which reports that even engagement in low-intensity (aerobic) training is subpar, with 85 percent of the population exercising below the recommended levels.
The researcher thinks it's high time we upped our game when it comes to physical activity.
"Our message to date has just been to get moving but this study prompts a rethink about, when appropriate, expanding the kinds of exercise we are encouraging for long-term health and well-being," he says.
For those of us worried about going to the gym and using specialized equipment, the researchers say there is no cause for concern. Basic strength exercises — such as squats, push-ups, or situps — performed at home should do the trick.
"When people think of strength training they instantly think of doing weights in a gym, but that doesn't have to be the case," reassures the lead researcher.
"Many people are intimidated by gyms, the costs or the culture they promote, so it's great to know that anyone can do classic exercises like triceps dips, sit-ups, push-ups or lunges in their own home or local park and potentially reap the same health benefits."
Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis