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Importance of Strength Training

Many Benefits - Strength training is not just about bodybuilding, sculpting muscle or flexing your biceps.  It can benefit people of all ages and may be particularly important for people with health issues such as arthritis or a heart condition.  There are many other reasons to exercise, too.  Protecting your brain health and optimizing your thinking ability is one of them.  In fact, there's compelling evidence that exercise produces large cognitive gains, improves memory, and helps fight dementia too. 

Obviously maintaining our strength as we age is important.  We naturally lose muscle as we age (called sarcopenia), but what most people fail to realize is that the majority of that loss actually comes from the fast twitch muscle fiber.  Put another way, a submaximal fitness program such as walking, running, swimming or other cardiovascular based activity will not stimulate the fast twitch fibers.  Strength training is the only way to preserve that muscle fiber.  It is the fast twitch fiber that provides agility, power and preserves our ability to perform daily tasks as we age. 

Many people just look at exercise, such as walking as a great way to improve circulation or lose weight.  They are not wrong however walking alone is not a comprehensive approach to maintaining your maximum health potential.  Research on cardiovascular activities shows a positive correlation to weight loss in conjunction with a healthy eating plan.  But strength training has also shown significant benefits to people for weight loss.  In fact, the benefits of strength training can exceed the benefits of pure cardiovascular activity because your are building muscle composition and preventing the loss of lean muscle mass.  With the addition of lean muscle mass, the greater your metabolic rate or your daily caloric demand will be.  This is "Great" for weight loss or better yet Fat Reduction.  And the benefits don't end there either.  Strength training also improves both extremity and heart circulation, lowers cholesterol, improves blood pressure, wards off cancer, makes you feel better and helps you live longer.  These are great benefits, but there are more.  It may not be as obvious to you that exercise also improves blood flow to the brain and improves the production of nerve-protecting compounds.  Exercise also reduces damaging plaque accumulation in the brain and improves memory, too.  The two things that people are most concerned about as they age; being able to remain active enough to perform their daily tasks, and not suffering from a brain based, memory destroying disease which robs them of their most precious memories; are preserved by strength training.

No longer is it a cardiovascular world where its only old school aerobics that helps you reduce weight and improve heart health.  No strength training has been shown to have a very beneficial impact on your health with all the same benefits that you would get from your morning run.  That includes cholesterol reduction, blood pressure changes, reducing blood sugar, disease prevention and longevity.  And of course, now we can add brain function and memory to that list of benefits.  One study found that just 20 minutes of strength training was enough to enhance long-term memory by about 10 percent. 

Another study which supports these findings suggests that working your leg muscles helps maintain cognitive function as you get older.  According to the authors, simple walking more could help maintain brain function well into old age, but strength training is the real key to maintaining your youth.  According to the research the only thing keeping you able to function as you did when you were younger is your strength and cardiovascular activities cannot prevent strength loss as you age.  

What is important to understand here is not that doing lots of squats and burpees are the key to longevity, but that overall someone who is strong will have less age-related brain changes and less disease that someone who has never exercised, or strength trained.

Myokines - Did you also realize that strength training causes certain proteins in the muscle called myokines to be released?  That might mean anything to you until you understand that these myokines actually trump the inflammatory cytokines and overall produce less inflammation, especially in those with arthritis.  This can also be helpful in treating metabolic disease, too.

So, what we know and understand about exercise is that strength training can have similar results metabolically as cardiovascular exercise, and now we know that it's not just your biceps that benefit from fitness, your brain is also one of the major benefactors of exercise, too.

Brain Health - Past research has demonstrated that exercise promotes brain health by releasing hormones from the muscles which encourage the growth of new brain cells - a process known as neurogenesis of neuroplasticity, further suggesting that those in early Parkinson's may also benefit from strength training.  Research in whole body vibration also suggests significant but safe benefits for those with Parkinson's and other brain related issues.

Research clearly points out that it is possible to grow new cells in your brains memory center throughout your entire lifetime, providing that your lifestyle supports it.  Not convinced?  A one year-long study found that adults who exercised regularly were able to enlarge their brain's memory center by 1-2 percent per year when they exercised.  Without exercise we would expect those brain centers to shrink with age.

The hippocampus or brain memory center belongs to a part of your brain know as the limbic system.  It plays an important role in the consolidation of information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory, as well as spatial navigation.  Previous animal research has found that not only does exercise activate hippocampal neurons, it actually promotes their growth.  In one study, exercising mice grew an average of 6,000 new brain cells in every cubic millimeter of tissue sampled.  That's hard to dismiss as anything else but exercise induced.  So what about human studies right? A study of elementary children who did 40 minutes of daily activity were found to improve their IQ by 4 points in a study.  In the same study they found that students who exercised before class improved their test scores 17% over those who did not exercise, and those who exercised for at least 40 minutes three times a week improved an entire letter grade.

Many studies find the same basic results. Employees who exercise are more productive and make less mistakes.  Adults who exercise have better cognition and les of a chance of disease, the list is long, the studies many, and the results speak for themselves.

Exercise - Certainly, a walking program is a good place to start.  But let's face reality.  Walking cannot help you to stop the loss of muscle as you age.  Only strength training can do that.  When it comes to strength training one of the most effective training programs is high intensity training intervals (HIIT), followed by cable resistance machines, free weights, and other functional exercise programs.  Least effective is fixed range exercise equipment which is found in most traditional health clubs.  Care must be taken with interval training secondary to the intensity and risk of over exertion and injury.  Exercises needs to be performed correctly and often require a tapering in period to adjust to the new physical demands of this training.

Adding a walking or low intensity cardiovascular program along with a strength program like HIIT can be considered a solid and long-term approach to health, fitness and weight control.  This program should follow a warm up (5 min), HIIT (10-20 min), and then cardiovascular training (20-45 min) pattern.  The pattern of exercise is considered the gold standard in patients managed by Weight Loss and Vitality which has helped thousands of patients regain control of the health and weight concerns. 

So, strength training your muscles is important. It's important for your energy, metabolism, ability to live longer, maintain a high quality of life and productive life.  Strength training produces a number of molecular, enzymatic, hormonal, and chemical changes that help slow down and even reverse a number of disease including type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. 

Conclusion - By strengthening muscle, connective tissues, tendons, and ligaments, strength training helps you maintain a youthful posture.  It allows you to perform everyday activities like climbing stairs and getting out of a chair with greater ease.  This freedom of movement adds to the quality of your life.  It may also make you look and feel younger! One study showed that strength training in the elderly genetically turned back the biological clock over 10 years.

So, now you know how to build stronger bones, help your heart, improve your balance, make yourself feel like you have more energy, look and feel better, help you lose weight and prevent yourself from being institutionalized due to disease in later life.  As Socrates said, what a shame it would be for us to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which our body is capable of.


David J. Bauder, PA-C David Bauder, PA-C, is a certified physician assistant and the medical director at Weight Loss and Vitality in Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, DC. He enjoys helping patients optimize their physical and mental health to improve their overall well-being. He earned his physician assistant degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Afterward, he gained admission into the reputable graduate program for physician assistant studies at the University of Nebraska Health Science Center in Omaha. David has over 25 years of experience working as a physician assistant. He’s practiced in podiatry, family medicine, emergency medicine, general surgery, urgent care, and functional medicine.

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