Christine Hopaluk lost 129 pounds and 14 dress sizes, and the mother of three from Leduc, Alta., says she’s managed to keep it off for more than a decade because of strength training.
“It changed my life. I don’t enjoy cardio but when I got into strength training I loved it. It’s just an empowering thing that helped more than just my body,” Hopaluk told Global News.
When you think of weight training, body builders with bulky muscles and chiseled chests come to mind, but scientists say resistance training offers incredible benefits for everyday people hoping for better health, too.
“We’re very familiar with the benefits of aerobic exercise like running, cycling or walking, but we haven’t focused on lifting and strength exercise. They’re seen on either ends of the spectrum – one makes you strong and muscular and one helps you live longer but that’s not true. The reality is the two, in terms of health benefits, overlap more than they differ,” Dr. Stuart Phillips, a McMaster University professor in kinesiology and Canada Research Chair in skeletal muscle health, told Global News.
“I’ve seen countless transformations from regimented resistance training. Not only from a body standpoint, but emotionally and mentally as well,” said Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, director of the Human Performance Lab at New York City’s Lehman College.
Weight lifting isn’t just about bulking up and building muscle mass, the experts say. Its benefits include improved posture, better sleep, gaining bone density, maintaining weight loss, boosting metabolism, lowering inflammation and staving off chronic disease, among a laundry list of positives.
Here’s a look at reasons why resistance training is incredible for your health.
It keeps your bones strong and healthy
Your bones need to stay challenged, just like your brain needs exercise to stay sharp. After about age 30, you start to lose bone density at a small percentage each year. Keep in mind, women make up 80 per cent of osteoporosis cases as they lose bone mass.
“Resistance training creates force on the bone and helps it stay strong. Your body cares about survival, not looking cute in a bikini – it has to adapt to survive so it’ll get stronger and bones will get stronger to endure these forces,” Schoenfeld said.
It staves off disease
Phillips says the research community is recognizing that cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and “all the classic chronic diseases” including cancer aren’t as likely with any form of activity, from strength training to cardio.
They say running is good for your heart, your brain, your waistline and your mental health. That applies to weight training too.
“A lot of the relationships with aerobic fitness are strongly tied to and mirrored in people’s strength. The stronger you are, the more resilient you are against disease and overall risk for mortality,” Phillips said.
It boosts metabolism and fat loss
Hopaluk started with cardio, cardio, cardio until she hit a plateau. That’s when she read up about strength training.
“I learned you can change your metabolism because you’re burning more calories if you have more muscle. It’s an active tissue, it burns more energy at rest compared to fat,” she said.
Phillips uses a thermostat as an analogy: Imagine your body is a house and aerobic exercise cranks the heat for about 30 to 40 minutes while you work out. Resistance training, on the other hand, doesn’t turn the heat up as much but the burn lingers for a longer time.
“There’s a small advantage,” he said. Weight training, on a whole, however, can aid in weight maintenance and change your body’s composition.
As Hopaluk gained muscle mass, her weight crept up while her dress sizes got smaller.
“Muscle weighs more than fat. A pound of feathers is the same as a pound of bricks, but one’s less dense taking up less room. I looked at it like building a foundation of bricks by building muscle,” she said.
It regulates insulin and lowers inflammation
Along with keeping away chronic disease, strength training has you burning through glucose, which is good news for those grappling with Type 2 diabetes who consistently need to manage blood sugar levels.
Lifting weights even aids in fighting off inflammation, a marker tied to many diseases. Studies have suggested that regular resistance training sessions, about twice a week, resulted in drops in inflammation in overweight women.
But the experts say, for now, there’s no clear reason why weightlifting helps with inflammation.
It improves posture, sleep, mood and energy levels
“Besides the aesthetic, physiological and strength benefits, it affects just how we feel and how clearly we think. Weight training [has] proven to improve the quality of a person’s sleep,” Thorne told Global News.
“I’d say most folks feel pretty good about their mood and energy…I’ve not met a person who didn’t enjoy the changes they saw and especially women. Most non-exercisers who begin a program and can turn it into a habit begin to like, love, crave the gym,” Phillips said.
It improves strength and endurance
Phillips said that as you train, your body grows stronger and the effects will ricochet into other aspects of your physical activity.
“If your legs get stronger, then the amount of time you can spend on a walking challenge, on a treadmill, on a hike, will be longer. Even very good runners who do weight training actually improve their running efficiency,” he said.
They’re able to run at the same speed while using a lower capacity of their leg strength.
It improves balance and reduces the risk of falls
This is key for aging Canadians as they grapple with frailty and lose their autonomy. Strength training, even in the elderly, provides better balance and strengthens your legs, Phillips says.
For the everyday Canadian, it means being able to carry heavy groceries up a flight of stairs or help out on moving day. For older Canadians, it means being able to carry out everyday activities, too.
“Your muscle mass really deteriorates in old age. [Strength] is a clinical marker for functional dependence,” Schoenfeld said.
Keep in mind, falls are a major risk factor for the elderly.
Fifty per cent of seniors who get a hip fracture from a fall don’t live past two years following the incident. With improved balance, they’d better equipped to regain equilibrium, Schoenfeld said.
It boosts confidence
Thorne has been lifting weights for about two decades now. Like Hopaluk, he said the exercise was transformative.
“Lifting weights has obviously changed my life and directed my path of life. Every day I decide to lift weights and I set a new personal best, those things build my self-esteem and self-confidence,” Thorne said. It’s also helped him maintain his weight from when he was about 20 years old.
Phillips said he lifts about four days a week.
“I’m 50 and feel like I’m 30,” he said.
“I can say, unequivocally, that lifting weights has completely changed my life in virtually every way. So much so, that I decided to make a career of it and educate others on the vast benefits,” he told Global News.