A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that weightlifting affects a person’s brain weeks before there’s a noticeable change in muscles. Researchers at New Castle University trained monkeys to pull a weighted handle with one arm by rewarding them with food, increasing the resistance of the weighted handle each week over the course of three months. The experiment revealed that lifting weights strengthens the nervous system through a motor tract called the reticulospinal tract, and this change occurs weeks before any muscle is added. This explains why gymgoers may become frustrated when they don’t see weightlifting gains right away, since the first few weeks of weight training strengthen the nervous system – not the muscles. But, as long as you stick with your weightlifting regimen, you’ll see many mental and physical improvements over time – such as developing strong bones and increasing muscle mass, losing weight and keeping it off, bettering your heart health, and enhancing your quality of life by improving posture, sleep, mood and energy levels.
DEVELOPING STRONG BONES AND INCREASING MUSCLE MASS
By the time we’re 30 years old, most of us will start losing around three to five percent of lean muscle mass per year due to aging. If we don’t do anything to replace the lean muscle that we’re losing, it’ll increase the percentage of fat in our bodies. Muscle-strengthening activities like weightlifting can help us preserve and/or enhance our muscle mass, strength and power, which are essential for bone, joint and muscle health as we age. By stressing our bones through strength training, we can increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
LOSING WEIGHT AND KEEPING IT OFF
Exercise science researchers believe that strength training is helpful for weight loss, because it helps increase your resting metabolism, or the rate that your body burns calories when you’re not exercising. In research on overweight or obese adults (age 60 and over), the combination of a low-calorie diet and weight training – strength training exercises 4 times per week for 18 months – resulted in greater fat loss compared to dieters who didn’t exercise or only did aerobic exercise, according to a study in the journal Obesity. This study also suggests that strength training is better at helping people lose belly fat compared to cardio, because aerobic exercise burns both fat and muscle, while weightlifting burns almost only fat. Along these same lines, a University of Alabama study found that women who lifted weights lost more intra-abdominal fat, or deep belly fat, than those who just did cardio.
BETTER CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH
Scientists evaluating the records of more than 4,000 people have concluded that lifting weights is healthier for the heart than going for a run or a walk. While both forms of exercise reduce the risk of heart disease, the research found that static activities like weightlifting have a greater effect than the same amount of dynamic exercise like running, walking or cycling.
A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise examined the exercise habits of almost 13,000 adults (the average age was 47 years old) who didn’t have cardiovascular disease. The results were that those who did at least an hour per week of weight training, using either free weights or weight machines, had a 40% to 70% lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to those who didn’t exercise. They also found similar results in people who did cardio exercise versus those who didn’t do any exercise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adult Americans should do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, as well as two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities per week.
ENHANCING YOUR QUALITY OF LIFE
Strength training can help with your balance, coordination and posture, boost your energy levels, and improve your mood. A study showed that strength training reduced the risk of falling by 40% for older people at a higher risk because of worse physical functioning, compared to people who didn’t do any weightlifting exercises.
Weightlifting also elevates your levels of endorphins, which lift energy levels and put you in a better mood. As you continue lifting heavier weights and start seeing your gains, it’ll also lead to a big self-esteem boost. And there’s evidence that strength training may help you sleep better, too. So, by lifting weights, you’ll not only become physically and mentally stronger, but you’ll also enhance your overall quality of life.