As part of my mini crusade to try and get more people into exercise, I’m writing a series of blogs to help build understanding of the health benefits of different types of exercise. In my last blog I looked at the benefits of cardiovascular (or CV or cardio) exercise – the stuff that gets your heart beating faster for a sustained period.

Using resistance bands as part of a workout
Using resistance bands as part of a workout

Today I’m going to be looking at resistance training – the stuff that gets your muscles working. This includes weight lifting, exercises using big elastic bands such as Dynabands to add resistance, and exercises that just use your body weight to work against, such as press ups or pull ups.

One of the main reasons that people do weight training is to develop their muscles, both to look good, and to improve their muscle strength and endurance for sport and every day life. But there are a host of other health benefits.

One of the biggest benefits is bone health. Whilst osteoporosis used to be seen as ‘an old person’s disease’, it’s on the up in young people, and one of the main reasons is thought to be because young people’s lifestyles these days just don’t involve enough regular stress on their bones.

This may seem slightly counter intuitive – but stress in this context is a good thing. As a load (or weight) is placed through the bone, it results in a slight deformation of the bone structure. This stimulates the bone to produce cells that will increase its density and make it stronger and harder. Therefore weight bearing exercise is particularly important for younger people (up until late 20s) whose bones are still growing, and can therefore reach a greater bone mineral density. The higher the bone mineral density, the longer it will take for it to break down and the bones to become brittle, therefore increasing vulnerability to osteoporosis. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother if you’re no longer a spring chicken – resistance training in later life will still slow the rate of bone mineral loss.

Resistance training also strengthens and nourishes joints – as the weight passes through the cartilage in the joints, the fluid within them is temporarily squeezed out. Then as the pressure is released, the cartilage sucks fluid back in, bringing in a fresh supply of nutrients and nourishment to the joints.

And as the ligaments (which attach bone to bone across the joints) and tendons (connect the ends of the muscle to the bone) are strengthened through exercise, the stability of the joints increases.

That’s not to say that it’s all positive benefits or risk free – cartilage damage can lead to osteoarthritis or cartilage tears. This mostly occurs when there’s uneven pressure on the cartilage at one end of a joint, caused by uneven forces passing through the joint. These risks can be minimised through ensuring good technique and posture, ensuring training is balanced (this is particularly important if you’re injured and therefore likely to change your technique) and ensuring your trainers have enough arch support.

Another risk of imbalanced resistance training is that if muscles are overdeveloped on just one side of the joint, the joint structure can change, leading to poor posture or even permanent changes to the joint structure. Again balanced training should minimise this.

Whilst in most gyms it’s the men down the weights area, and the women doing cardio, the sad irony is that women’s health would really benefit from more weight training as women are more at risk of poor bone health – one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will break a bone mainly because of poor bone health.

Many women worry that if they do too much resistance training or weights work, they’ll ‘get too big or bulky’. I’ll come onto this more in a future blog, as it’s a big bugbear of mine, but for now the simple answer is ‘no’, women just don’t produce anywhere near the same levels of testosterone as men, so unless you’re taking steroids, you’re not going to turn into the incredible hulk.

Finally, for those wanting to lose weight, and all the health benefits that brings, resistance training is great because you carry on burning the calories after you’ve finished the exercise as your body works to rebuild the muscle that you’ve used during your workout.

So hopefully that’s given you a few reasons to think about adding in some more muscle building work to your day. Any questions or comments, do let me know.

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