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Aerobic activities and weight training have health benefits on their own, but combining them could have even greater effect when it comes to disease prevention and early death risk.
People who lifted weights once or twice per week, as well as the recommended amount of aerobic activities, had a 41% lower risk of dying early, according to a study published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The research team based its findings on the self-reports and health information of nearly 100,000 men and women who participated in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial, which began in 1998 and followed participants until 2016. Participants answered questionnaires in 2006 about their exercise habits over the past year, and the authors of this latest study checked whether these participants had developed cancer or died by 2016.
Older adults who did weight training without any aerobic activity reduced their risk of early death from any cause by up to 22%, a percentage that depended on the number of times they lifted weights within a week – using weights once or twice weekly was associated with a 14% lower risk, and the benefit increased the more times someone lifted weights.
Those who did aerobic exercise lowered their risk by up to 34%, compared with participants who didn’t do any weight training or aerobic exercise. But the lowest risk – 41% to 47% – was among those who met recommended weekly amounts of aerobic activity (see below for guidance) and lifted weights once or twice per week, compared with those who weren’t active. The authors didn’t find a lower risk for death from cancer.
Participants’ education, smoking status, body mass index, race and ethnicity didn’t impact the findings, but sex did – the associations were more significant among women, the researchers found.
“The findings in this study are predictable, but it is significant that the authors provide the expected results as data in older people,” said Haruki Momma, a lecturer in the department of medicine and science in sports and exercise at Tohoku University in Japan, via email. Momma wasn’t involved in the study.
“This is one of the most important points of this study,” Momma added. “Previous studies in older adults are limited.”
The findings support the joint benefits of muscle-strengthening activities via weight training along with aerobic activity, in amounts that roughly align with current physical activity guidelines, the authors said.
The World Health Organization recommends that older adults (ages 65 and up) do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week. Aerobic activities include walking, dancing, running or jogging, cycling, and swimming.
Muscle-strengthening exercises should be done at least twice weekly if possible, according to the guidelines. Those can help prevent falls and related injuries, as well as declines in bone health and ability.
Weight-training exercises you can do for 30 to 60 minutes include dead lifts, overhead dumbbell presses and dumbbell lateral raises, which involves using your back and shoulder muscles to lift light dumbbells so that your arms and body form a T shape.
Important note: If you experience pain while exercising, stop immediately. Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
Understanding strength and death risk
The authors didn’t have information about the specific weight training or aerobic exercises participants did.
“As the authors stated, there was no information about training intensity, training load, volume (sets and repetitions),” Momma said via email. “Therefore, the optimal prescription for regular muscle-strengthening exercises to prevent mortality remains unclear. However, this limitation is not limited to this study. Studies of muscle-strengthening exercise epidemiology are prone to this limitation.”
But the researchers did have some ideas about how either exercise might help with prevention of disease or early death.
Weight training can improve body composition or lean muscle mass, which has been previously associated with greater protection against dying early from any cause and cardiovascular disease.
Having more lean muscle and less body fat can help with balance, posture and regulating cholesterol levels, Dr. Nieca Goldberg told CNN in March. Goldberg, the medical director of Atria New York City and clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, wasn’t involved in the study.
“We know that individuals with obesity are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, glucose intolerance and some cancers, so improving that (health) profile is beneficial,” Goldberg said. “People who participate in regular activity … may also have a healthier outlook and have other healthy lifestyles.”
The increased benefit from combining both exercises could be because the two work together to improve health, Dr. William Roberts, a professor in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota, told CNN in March. A balanced regimen more closely mimics the lifestyles of our ancestors, he added.
Additionally, muscle helps functions of the endocrine and paracrine systems, the authors said – the ones responsible for hormones and cell communication, respectively. Weight training might also be done in social settings, the researchers added, and having social connections has been linked with living longer.
The authors noted that there could be measurement errors associated with participants recalling their exercise habits, and that the study might not be applicable to people of color and younger individuals, as most of the participants were non-Hispanic White and age 71 on average.
Future studies that are more diverse, longer and attentive over time would be beneficial for understanding the relationships between these exercises and early death risk, the authors said.
But for now, older adults who do either exercise should incorporate the other into their daily lives, Momma said.
“Some physical activity is better than none at all,” Momma said. “Because the fitness levels and chronic conditions among the elderly vary with (the) individual, please be as physically active as your abilities and conditions allow.”