One of the most damaging misconceptions out there is that lifting weights is an exercise in vanity.
“All those meatheads curling dumbbells and admiring themselves in the mirror,” scoff the untrained masses. “I’m so glad I’m not a narcissist like they are.”
Hold up! An essential first step when learning to lift is that looking nice is just a side effect. An enjoyable side effect, sure, and for many it’s the reason they picked up their first barbell.
But the benefits of strength go way, way, way beyond that. Some of them – confidence, lower body fat, resistance to injury – you’re probably aware of. Here are five effects that get less time in the spotlight. (Next time someone asks why you lift, try sending ‘em this.)
1) A Stronger Brain
Like many parts of the body, the brain tends to shrink with age, but lifting weights appears to help slow the process.
A lot of studies on brain health focus on the benefits of aerobic exercise, but a recent study of women aged between 65 and 75 showed that twice-weekly strength training can dramatically slow the disintegration of white matter in the brain when compared to a group that lifted weights just once per week and another that only focused on stretching and balance training. (White matter is the material that connects and passes information between different brain regions.)
When younger folks start a lifting habit, it builds a stronger brain that’s less likely to experience Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of mental decline, probably due in part to the fact that progressive resistance training seems to boost BDNF, a protein that helps to build new brain cells.
2) Cleaner Blood
Worried about your cholesterol? Strength training is a solid natural remedy.
In one widely cited study of women in their twenties, fourteen weeks of heavy strength training (at eighty-five percent of their one-rep max) resulted in significant decreases in blood cholesterol levels and a strong trend toward more favorable ratios of LDL (bad) to HDL (good) cholesterol. Other studies have shown better blood sugar, a lower heart rate, and a heart that’s literally bigger and stronger.
Even though “cardio” sounds like the pick for a healthier heart, the American Heart Association strongly recommends strength training. Not just because lifting weights improves blood pressure, but also because it seems to boost performance at aerobic exercise. (More strength means improved speed and time to exhaustion during cardio.)
Of course, heavy lifting is a super effective way to reduce body fat, and a slimmer waistline is another factor in reducing the risk of heart disease. What was that about abs just being for show?
3) Activated Genes
The genes you’re born with, as it turns out, don’t control your destiny. Not entirely, anyway: while your genes are fixed, strength training appears to activate and “reprogram” certain genes. (Think of it like changing the software in your hardware – the genes don’t change, but the way they act does.)
This is obviously a complex topic, but in a 2014 study where participants only strengthened one of their legs, the genomes in that leg changed. In fact, more than five thousand areas of the genome were expressing themselves differently, showing improvement in their energy metabolism, inflammation, and insulin response. Other studies have shown that a shift in gene expression could be why resistance training is linked to better immunity, stress response, and protein synthesis.
There’s still a lot to learn, but one thing’s relatively clear: stronger muscles means healthier genes.
4) Reduced Depression
Iron may indeed be the best therapy for some of us.
When compared with aerobic training or no exercise at all, resistance training has been shown in several studies to be the best form of physical exercise to reduce the symptoms of generalized anxiety. In one particularly promising trial of thirty sedentary women, signs of worry and anxiety showed remission in sixty percent of the participants, compared with forty percent for the aerobic training group. Studies have shown a beneficial effect on people suffering from clinical depression, too.
While these studies are definitely promising, they’re not a blanket recommendation; we absolutely advise speaking with a medical practitioner first if you find yourself experiencing the symptoms of depression.
5) Fewer Strokes
Physical inactivity has been listed by the famous Interstroke study as one of the five key risk factors that are responsible for eighty percent of the world’s strokes, and in this case, more is better: one meta-analysis of twenty-three studies concluded that the risk reduction in moderately and high physically active results was twenty-seven percent.
A lot of this literature doesn’t much differentiate between aerobic and resistance training, but while aerobic definitely has its place, strength – in particular, grip strength – has been very strongly correlated with stroke risk. (One study found that each eleven-pound decrease in grip strength is associated with a nine percent increase in stroke risk.)
Strength training is also one of the best-studied methods to improve function after a stroke. This is likely because of the effect on mental health, balance, and blood pressure.
Many of the conditions we just mentioned are considered consequences of the aging process, and strength training’s ability prevent, combat, and reverse some of their effects is why – and we know this sounds a little dramatic – lifting weights literally makes your body younger.
So, get lifting! It makes you look awesome and, as it turns out, your life depends on it.
This article is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. See your doctor if you’re experiencing any symptoms of the preceding conditions.