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Strength training does more than build muscle. Its hidden benefits are massive


A new study finds there are more health benefits to strength training beyond just building muscles. Turns out it is good for people's mood and metabolism and longevity. And according to the data, women may have the most to gain. As part of our project on how to thrive as you age, NPR's Allison Aubrey has been digging into this and joins us now. Hey, Allison.


KELLY: Tell me more about what exactly this new research finds.

AUBREY: Sure. It shows that people who do strength training actually live longer. The study is based on the habits of about 400,000 adults in the U.S., and researchers found people who did strength training 2 to 3 times a week had about a 20% reduced risk of premature death. And this is likely explained by a whole bunch of health benefits that come from making our muscles stronger. I spoke to one of the study authors, Dr. Martha Gulati. She's a preventive cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

MARTHA GULATI: What surprised us the most was the fact that women who do muscle-strengthening activity had a reduction in their cardiovascular mortality by 30%. I mean, we don't have many things out there that reduce mortality in that way.

AUBREY: Now, in this study, everyone - people born female and male - all benefited. But the data show that women need less exercise than men to get the boost in longevity.

KELLY: OK. Well, hallelujah to that.

AUBREY: Right?

KELLY: Right. What explains this gender difference, though?

AUBREY: You know, it's not exactly clear, but Dr. Gulati says there are some theories. Women peak with less muscle mass, so it may take less strength training to get the same results as men. And she says women tend to have more capillaries, more small blood vessels feeding parts of the muscle. So these factors may explain the kind of relative difference. But Dr. Gulati says, at a time when many women gravitate towards cardio, towards aerobic exercise, many ignore weight training. In fact, in the study, only about 20% of women did resistance training. She says she'd like to see that change, and she prescribes both to her patients.

GULATI: So we need to start encouraging women to understand the overall health benefits of doing regular muscle training or resistance training as much as we want people to do aerobic activity.

AUBREY: Because it's not just about longevity, there are lots of other benefits. For instance, weight training can help protect our joints and our bones. It can help boost our mood - who doesn't want that? - and help us burn more calories.

KELLY: Love it, love it, love it.


KELLY: Tell me more about burning more calories.

AUBREY: Yeah. So I spoke to a trainer named Bryant Johnson about this. He was actually Ruth Bader Ginsburg's longtime trainer and has written a book about his workouts.

BRYANT JOHNSON: When you're doing resistance training, you're actually building muscle, and muscle burns calories. As you're building that muscle, those muscles actually requires energy.

AUBREY: So the more you move, the more you burn. And the research shows resistance training can also help control blood sugar. So it's really good for metabolic health.

KELLY: So if I'm in and I'm ready to go, besides weightlifting, what else can I do to get resistance training?

AUBREY: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, until very recently, I was one of the 80% of women not in the habit of weight training. And what I have learned is that all activities, Mary Louise, that require us to use our muscles to work against a weight or a force count as resistance or strength training. So things like pushups and squats. I started working with a trainer at the YMCA, Rita Mortellaro, who has taught me to do a bunch of these kinds of things. Here I am on an ab machine where all I'm doing is just pulling my legs up to my chest.

RITA MORTELLARO: Thirteen, yeah. Fourteen, good. Give me one more. Fifteen, good. Oh, that was some golden reps right there. Yes, it's supposed to be hard. If it's not hard, it's not working.

AUBREY: So I hope I am moving in the right direction. But really the key point I want to leave you with, Mary Louise, is that we can build muscle at any age and see the benefits if we stick with it.

KELLY: Allison Aubrey, my hero.


KELLY: Thank you so much for showing us how it's done.

AUBREY: Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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