We are not designed to be inactive. We are designed to move, and move a lot.
Whilst I appreciate that not everybody is in a position to be able to be very active, for those that are, I’m assuming you will want to stay that way for as long as possible. I know I do. Even if you have problems with mobility there are many things you may still be able to do to increase your activity levels, with the right support.
It is well documented how beneficial exercise is for us in general. The UK Chief Medical Officers say in their 2019 Physical Activity Guidelines that “if physical activity were a drug we would refer to it as a miracle cure due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and help treat.”
I’m reading a new book, 'Burn: The MisunderStood Science of Metabolism' at the moment by eminent scientist Herman Pontzer in which he talks about how our bodies adapted eons ago to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and this required us to be extremely physically active every day. Then as we became more civilised and more sedentary our ability to store fat has now become more of a curse than a blessing. He says “we have graduated as a species from brutally killing each other to mindlessly killing ourselves” because of the amount of diseases we are now succumbing to that are actually caused by inactivity and obesity. It's a very interesting read.
So while we know being active is important, I want to focus specifically on the benefits of resistance training which I think are not as widely known as I think they should be.
I started weight training (a form of resistance training) regularly in 2012 but up to that point I had no real idea that doing so had so many benefits to my health, not just now but in the future. It was only when I started studying to become a personal trainer that it really brought home to me just how important resistance training is. I really wish I’d known when I was younger just how beneficial it is.
So I’m going to share with you some of the things that I have learned about the benefits of resistance training so that you can consider how you might be able to incorporate more of it into your life if you aren’t doing so already, and if you are already doing it, knowing a little bit more about the benefits may help you to keep going at times when you don’t feel like it.
What is resistance training?
It’s simply using your muscles against a weight or a force. Muscles gradually adapt to the load that is put on them. The muscles will increase in size and they will communicate better with your brain, resulting in improved coordination as well as improved strength. It is a gradual process so it is important to stick at it, and be consistent.
Benefits to current health
Regardless of the type of exercise, the more regularly we do it the more our skeletal muscles will become stronger and increase in size. However, before you panic and think you will turn into Arnie, you will only significantly increase in bulk if you do a body-building style of training. So unless you are doing this kind of training you are not going to create lots of extra muscle bulk, which is something that puts a lot of people off doing it. Of course, if you want to increase your muscle bulk, then that is what you will need to do.
The benefits of increasing our muscular strength include improvements in posture, the ability to burn more energy and therefore prevent fat gain, (as long as we are not over eating) increased stamina, increased cardiovascular fitness to a degree, and the ability to manage more easily the activities of daily living, not to mention all the feel-good benefits for our mental health. Then there is also the increased ability to rescue yourself or someone else should you be in a very unfortunate position of needing to do so. There are also specific benefits to people with Type 2 diabetes for example, as exercise, including resistance training, increases insulin sensitivity. However, please ensure you consult your doctor if you’re diabetic and thinking about exercise, to ensure you get the right advice for your specific condition.
Use it or lose it!
Have you ever heard of the term sarcopenia? I hadn’t until I started studying for my personal training qualifications. But I’m very glad that I know about it now.
Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of skeletal muscle tissue and is highly significant in reducing quality of life and independence as we age. Accordig to J Walston (2012) it starts to happen from our 40s and we could potentially lose 50% of skeletal muscle by our 80s. It’s one of the reasons why we can put on more fat as we age because with less lean muscle tissue we won’t burn as many calories each day, and if we’re not eating any less to accommodate that, or protecting our skeletal muscle by using it sufficiently, it’s little wonder that this fat gain will start to happen.
This loss of skeletal muscle can start a chain of events which can ultimately lead to an early death. For example, if we lose the ability to function properly this is a vicious circle because the less we feel able to do the less we end up doing and the more muscle we lose and that can then cause all of the health problems that we associate with inactivity and frailty. We may also lose our ability to balance effectively and can start having falls.
Falls in the elderly, especially if there is also age-related bone loss and weakness (osteopenia or osteoporosis) can lead to broken bones including hip fractures and there is a high death rate associated with patients in the months following a hip fracture. According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) "about 10% of people with a hip fracture die within 1 month, and about one third within 12 months. However, fewer than half of deaths are attributable to the fracture... often the combination of fall and fracture brings to light underlying ill health."
Then there are the increased risks from the health conditions associated with weight gain or inactivity, such as Type II diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, to name a few.
One of the main causes of sarcopenia is being sedentary, as the body is constantly breaking down and building up muscle tissues, and the body will not create new tissues if there is not a demand for it from the activities we are doing, and this accelerates as we age. So while we might be able to get away with periods of inactivity when we are younger, it will catch up with us as we age.
You may have heard on the news recently about patients in hospital following Covid 19 infection and how they have lost a lot of muscle and are unable to walk. This is an example of sarcopenia in action. It most likely happened to my very active Dad when he was admitted to hospital for a week a few years ago, and it was really shocking. He was unable to stand or walk without help for a few days when he came home and needed rehabilitation. Prior to this he had been extremely fit and active. Coupled with a poor diet, especially one that is low in protein, sarcopenia has the potential to be so debilitating.
The good news!
While not all of this is reversible or preventable, the good news is that the more we look after ourselves the greater our chances of preventing the worst effects of sarcopenia and osteopenia. Eating a healthy diet sufficiently high in protein and taking part in regular cardiovascular exercise such as walking, running or cycling are all really helpful things to do, but in addition to that, resistance training is vital if we are to help preserve our health and well-being for the future, by telling the body to keep making new muscle tissue.
In addition, even if we do develop things like arthritis, having strong muscles to support our joints can really help to reduce the impact of the condition so that it is more manageable and less painful. Not to mention any weight loss resulting from resistance training will reduce the stress on the joints. This means we are more likely to stick to any exercise programs much later in life and have a far greater quality of life as a result.
The UK Chief Medical Officers Guidance (2019) p16 states that "Strengthening activities are important throughout life for different reasons: to develop strength and build healthy bones during childhood and young adulthood; to maintain strength in adulthood; and to delay the natural decline in muscle mass and bone density which occurs from around 50 years of age, maintaining function in later life".
So what sort of things can you do?
I'm not going to provide details here as there are plenty of options available on the internet, but these are the sorts of things you can include in your weekly schedule. Please make sure that you take appropriate advice.
Weight training in a gym
Weight training at home using equipment or household items
Activities that involve equipment eg climbing the stairs instead of using the lift, carrying shopping bags (with good posture)
How much should you do?
The UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines (2019) recommend that adults aged 19 to 64 years should aim to be physically active every day. In relation to resistance training specifically, "adults should do activities to develop or maintain strength in the major muscle groups. These could include heavy gardening, carrying heavy shopping, or resistance exercise. Muscle strengthening activities should be done on at least two days a week, but any strengthening activity is better than none."
For older adults, aged 65 years and over, they recommend participation in daily physical activity and that they should "maintain or improve their physical function by undertaking activities aimed at improving or maintaining muscle strength, balance and flexibility on at least two days a week..." and that "weight-bearing activities which create an impact through the body help to maintain bone health".
Please click this link for the full details of the recommendations.
How does resistance training help with weight management?
Very simply, by increasing the amount of lean tissue in our bodies, which means we burn more calories even at rest, and from the 'after-burn' effect after training. In order to grow and adapt in response to the load they have been subjected to, muscles break down and rebuild themselves and this process requires energy, and continues long after our training session has finished. So don't take too much notice of what your fitness tracker tells you, as it won't take this into account. It will only register your actual activity. But of course, this will only help with weight loss and maintenance if you don't end up eating more after training!
In conclusion: keeping active and including regular resistance training is likely to improve or maintain current good health, and plays a vital role in safeguarding our future health, wellbeing, and independence.
Disclaimer: Please do your own research regarding what exercise is suitable for you, take appropriate advice, and if you have any medical problems please consult your doctor before embarking on any weight loss or exercise programmes.
If you found this helpful why not check out the rest of my blog articles which provide information on a variety of popular topics to help you with managing your weight. Until next time...
NCBI: Sarcopenia in Older Adults
Healthline: How to Fight Sarcopenia
NICE: Hip Fractures in Adults
Healthline: Osteoporosis and Ostopenia
Burn: The Misunderstood Science of Metabolism; Herman Pontzer (2021)
Arthritis Health: Arthritis and Strength Training
NCBI: Exercise in the Management of Obesity