Before we dive in, let’s address and dismiss the elephant in the room: lifting weights, even heavy ones, will not make you bulky. It’s actually relatively difficult to build a muscle, which is why sarcopenia (the gradual loss of muscle mass) begins at the age of 35 for most women. Even more surprising, given popular belief, this decline in muscle isn’t a result of aging - it’s from inactivity.
In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women who don’t exercise can lose between 3%-8% of muscle mass per decade. Maybe this doesn’t sound so bad if you’re in the muscles-make-me-massive camp, but let’s consider that, aesthetically, muscle is much denser than body fat and takes up considerably less space. Therefore, more muscle + less fat = long and lean. Not the worst. More importantly however, maintaining muscle mass is paramount to your health and longevity for a number of reasons.
First, let’s look at the long term, big picture - how we age. We’ve all heard of osteoporosis, an alarmingly common condition in which bones become weak and brittle. You’ve probably even seen a fair number of commercials advertising medications with a slew of nasty side effects all to keep GamGam from cracking a rib the next time she sneezes. In case you haven’t, it may interest you to know that, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, common side effects for medications frequently used to treat osteoporosis include bone, joint or muscle pain, nausea, difficulty swallowing, heartburn, irritation of the esophagus and gastric ulcer. Yum. Or, you could pick something up and put it down a couple times a week, starting now. That’s right, along with a healthy diet, weight bearing exercise is the best thing you can do to prevent or treat osteoporosis.
Maybe you’re still not sold and think you have plenty of time to worry about your bones later. You’d rather power away on that bike for an hour and blast off fat - not to mention it’s good for your heart, right? Turns out, only kinda right. In a 2019 study published by Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise including more than 12,000 people over 10 years, it was found that people who did at least one hour of strength training per week, regardless of aerobic exercise, had a 40% to 70% lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to those who didn’t. Un-fun fact: cardiovascular disease has held the title for leading cause of death in the U.S. for more than a decade - have you grabbed those 3 pound weights off the back of your Peloton yet?
Ok fine, I get it, this is depressing. After a year like this, who hasn't experienced their share of depression? Fortunately, I've got something that can help with that. A 2018 study by JAMA Psychiatry concluded that a resistance training program followed twice a week contributed to a significant reduction in symptoms for people with mild to moderate depression. Better yet, people suffering from severe depression saw even greater improvements in their symptoms. Woosaahh.
Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about those of you who would really just love to be hot and shredded by summer. Challenge accepted. Not only can resistance training be a great form of low impact cardio when compound movements are combined with little rest between sets (HIIT, anyone?), you’ll actually burn more calories for a longer period of time after your workout through EPOC: Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. In other words, your body has to keep working (sometimes for hours) after you finish to replenish your depleted fuel resources, repair muscle tissue and restore your body temperature to resting levels. EPOC is determined by the intensity of the workout, not the duration; you could pedal away for an hour straight but studies show that you’ll burn more fat through a short, intense lifting session.
All of that being said, I’m not asking you to break up with cardio. It's still an invaluable member of the longevity team for reasons we'll dive into another time. I just want you to ask yourself if living stronger, longer sounds like something you might be into?
As always, stay curious!