When most people think about weight lifting, they picture greased-up Schwarzenegger look-a-likes whose muscles threaten to explode out of their clothes. But that's an outdated image. Weight lifting can do more than just "pump you up." In fact, adding strength training moves to your weekly exercise routine can improve your physical and mental health, prevent disease, keep you trim, and it may even keep you alive a little longer.
Don't believe me? Just take a look at some of the amazing benefits your can get by adding some iron to your workouts.
Promotes weight loss
Want to lose weight? Stop looking at the numbers on your scale and start looking at those weights collecting dust in your garage. Research shows that pound for pound, muscle tissues burn more calories than fat. And muscle fibers keep burning calories long after your workout is over. In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, women who did a weight-training workout for an hour burned roughly 100 more calories over the next 24 hours compared to women who didn't lift any weights.
It probably goes without saying that weight training can help you build and maintain muscle. But if you're afraid of bulking up, you shouldn't be. The latest research shows that even light weight lifting can yield powerful results for your health. That's good news for people who want strong muscles but don't want to look like the Hulk. Think strong and lean rather than beefed-up and bulky.
Counteracts bone loss
Sadly, one of the not-so-awesome facts about aging is bone loss. When we're young, our bodies keep everything in check by rebuilding bone as quickly as it's reabsorbed by the body. But as we age, the body can no longer keep up and the result is a gradual decline in bone density each year. Weight training counteracts that bone loss by stimulating the cells that rebuild bone. In a three-year study of post-menopausal women, researchers found that regular weight training helped women increase bone density in key locations (spine, hips, and heels) throughout the body.
Lowers risk of heart attack and stroke
A 2018 study from Iowa State University shows that lifting weights for as little as less than one hour a week can lower a person's risk of heart attack and stroke by 40 to 70 percent.
"People may think they need to spend a lot of time lifting weights, but just two sets of bench presses that take less than 5 minutes could be effective," said DC (Duck-chul) Lee, associate professor of kinesiology.
Lee and his team analyzed data of about 13,000 adults that focused on three different issues: cardiovascular events (such as heart attack and stroke) that did not result in death, all cardiovascular events including death and any type of death. They discovered that those who lifted weights and did resistance exercise lowered their risk in all three areas. Another revelation was that weightlifting for more than one hour a week didn't add any additional benefits concerning cardiovascular health.
Improves insulin sensitivity
A 2005 study of diabetic men found that twice-weekly strength training helped participants control insulin swings better than men who didn't lift any weights. In another study, researchers found that women who lifted weights at least two times a week were less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes over time than their peers. Experts at the World Health Organization currently note that 350 million people have diabetes worldwide and by 2030 they predict the disease to be the seventh leading cause of death.
Researchers are focusing on inflammation as the cause of certain health conditions such as heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and even asthma and allergies. But weight training may help to counteract that inflammation. In a study from researchers at the Mayo Clinic, women who lifted weights had lower levels of inflammation than their peers who did not.
Weight training exercises such as squats or bicep curls strengthen the muscles we use to do things in our daily lives, like lift groceries out of the trunk or navigate an icy sidewalk. According to the National Council on Aging, falls are the leading cause of death by injury and the most common cause of non-fatal hospital admissions for older adults. You know what can prevent falls? Better balance. And that's a direct result of greater strength.
Reduces anxiety and depression
Countless studies have shown that exercise in almost any form can help improve mood and stave off bouts of depression and anxiety. One study from researchers at Duke University found that patients who had been diagnosed with depression were able to manage their symptoms without medications after undergoing weight-lifting sessions four days a week for a four-month period.
Want to keep your brain in tip-top shape? Weight lifting may be the key. In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers followed 155 women between the ages of 65 and 75 and found that those who lifted weights once or twice a week performed better on cognitive tests after one year than those who focused on balance or toning exercises.
Improves your chances of survival
This 2014 study from the University of California, Los Angeles, the more muscle mass a person has, the lower their risk of premature death. As Mark Peterson, an assistant professor of physical medicine at the University of Michigan, puts it, the addition of weight training to a person's exercise routine "seems to be one of the best predictors of survival," adding, "when we add strength, almost every health outcome improves."
Bottom line - whether you want to lose weight, stay fit, keep your mind sharp, or prevent disease, it's time to look beyond the cardio and pick up some weights.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in June 2017.