Weightlifting, the most healthful exercise

What’s healthier, aerobic exercise or weights?

I’ve long thought that weightlifting is the best, that is the most health-giving, exercise, but admittedly some of that is my own prejudice. On logical grounds, however, it would seem the best, since an exercise like running works the circulatory system and the legs, while weightlifting works everything. (This is leaving aside such forms of exercise as HIT, high intensity training, or Cross Fit, which have elements of both.)

But some recent studies show that weightlifting is indeed a very healthy thing to do.

Weightlifting enhances the brain

Study number one: A single bout of resistance exercise can enhance episodic memory performance. In this study, the researchers wanted to see whether resistance training (weightlifting) had a beneficial effect on memory. And it did: memory improved in the weightlifters by about 10%. This is similar to results from aerobic exercise, so weightlifting at least matches it in this category.

Weightlifting prevents and treats sarcopenia

Study number two relates to sarcopenia, the condition of loss of muscle mass that occurs mainly in older people. Resistance Exercise for the Aging Adult: Clinical Implications and Prescription Guidelines. Quote: “Progressive resistance exercise should thus be encouraged among healthy adults to minimize degenerative muscular function associated with aging.” For comparison purposes, aerobic exercise will do very little to combat sarcopenia. It will do something, by helping to lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, two contributors to sarcopenia. But aerobic exercise will only help decrease the rate of muscle loss; it won’t build muscle. Resistance training will build muscle and strength, crucial for the health of older people. Sarcopenia is a serious condition that often leaves the elderly disabled and unable to function, headed for the nursing home or a hip fracture from a fall. And if you think that you’re not old enough to worry about this, think again: by age 40, adults start losing muscle mass at about 8% per decade, and this accelerates to about 15% per decade by age 70. (Link.) The best thing to do about sarcopenia is to stop it in the first place through weightlifting. (Protein has an important role in sarcopenia prevention too, but that’s outside the scope of this post.)

Weightlifting lowers the death rate in cancer survivors

Study number three, the capstone: The Effect of Resistance Exercise on All-Cause Mortality in Cancer Survivors. In this study, the researchers wanted to see whether weightlifting improved survival after cancer. I’ll let them have the floor:

“Physical activity in cancer survivors was not associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality. In contrast, RE was associated with a 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality (95% CI, 0.45-0.99) after adjusting for potential confounders, including PA.

Individuals who participated in RE during cancer survival had a lower risk for all-cause mortality. The present findings provide preliminary evidence for benefits of RE during cancer survival. Future randomized controlled trials examining RE and its effect on lean body mass, muscular strength, and all-cause mortality in cancer survivors are warranted.

So, to spell it put, physical activity, that is, garden variety aerobic exercise, had NO effect on survival, but those who lifted weights had a 33% decrease in mortality from all causes.

So it’s no contest: weightlifting is the most healthful exercise you can do. It strengthens the brain, prevents sarcopenia, and lowers mortality in cancer survivors.


Leave a Comment:

Sam says October 7, 2014

I’m not going to argue the point over which is better weight or aerobic exercise. It would seem to me that both would be best. I read a book many many years ago that NASA studied fitness and found intense ,til you’re you hit the limit, aerobic exercise gave you the best fitness. The best part is it doesn’t take long. Running all out as fast as you go, maybe swimming, etc. for a brief time, three times a week. The whole point is to exhaust yourself. I’ve also read the same information from a Canadian source. My apologies I can’t provide links. These were a while ago.

This peak exercise rate seems to kinda fit into the same class of ideas as a little radiation or a little poison to enhance your health.

    P. D. Mangan says October 7, 2014

    Wouldn’t disagree with any of that. I did note in my post that HIT and CrossFit I was putting to one side, and the type of exercise you describe is HIT, which is indeed very good. The point I wanted to make was that so-called aerobic, like jogging, is suboptimal.

      Sam says October 13, 2014

      Yes you’re correct. My apologies.

    jorgelgo says October 20, 2014

    Sam, you are just describing HIIT. High Intensity Interval Training. And you can do weight lifting in HIIT mode.

Michael says October 7, 2014

Reading your book now. Particularly interested in the section on BCAAs. How do you reconcile this study potentially linking BCAAs to neuro-degenerative diseases?


    P. D. Mangan says October 7, 2014

    Interesting, but it seems speculative. BCAAs prolong life in mice and increase mitochondrial function, so hard to see how it could be harmful. Unless this is a case where humans radically differ from mice in physiology.

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