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Women who do strength training live longer. How much is enough?


A new study points to big health benefits for people in the habit of weight lifting or other types of resistance training. Turns out they can live longer. As part of our NPR's How to Thrive as You Age project, our Allison Aubrey reports women may have the most to gain.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Have you ever found something you really like to do and then thought to yourself, why didn't I start this a long time ago? That's the way Ann Martin feels about her strength training routine. She's in her late 60s, lives in Wilmington, Del., and started working out with a trainer last fall.

ANN MARTIN: I never thought of exercise as fun. I was always the awkward one in gym class back in school days, and now I find it's fun.

AUBREY: She hits the gym and weight trains a few times a week, and she's finding the more you move, the more you feel like moving. Her new thing is to build a few minutes into her morning routine.

MARTIN: I keep a resistance band on my bedside table, and I'll reach over and I'll do some arm exercises with the band, and so I feel positive before I even get out of bed in the morning, that I've done something to help improve my health.

AUBREY: And a new study shows people who do strength training about two to three times a week actually live longer. Dr. Martha Gulati is a preventive cardiologist and one of the authors of the study.

MARTHA GULATI: I think what surprised us the most was the fact that women who do muscle strengthening activity had a reduction in their cardiovascular mortality by 30%. I mean, we don't have many things out there that reduce mortality in that way.

AUBREY: Exercise is medicine, she says. But many women tend to gravitate to aerobic activity and don't realize just how beneficial weight training can be. It can help protect our joints, our bones. It's also good for mood and metabolism. When you build more muscle, you can burn more calories.

GULATI: People will be surprised at how many calories you burn when you're doing resistance training, and it can be almost more powerful than being on, say, an elliptical or a treadmill.

AUBREY: Though women seem to get results faster, men benefit, too, says Eric Shiroma of the National Institutes of Health, which supported the study.

ERIC SHIROMA: I think one of the challenges to promoting this is that strength training can be intimidating. It's not all bodybuilders trying to lift super amounts of weight. It's trying to build it into our normal everyday life and exercise session.

AUBREY: It's helpful to know that all activities where you're making your muscles work against a weight or force are a form of resistance training, whether that's weight lifting, using weight machines, resistance bands, or using your own body weight, as with push ups or other exercises you can do at home. For people who are just starting out, they should know even 10 minutes a day can be beneficial.

SHIROMA: So the take-home message is let's be active and start moving as much as we can.

AUBREY: And aim to build up slowly. Ann Martin says six months into her new routine, she's already feeling stronger.

MARTIN: There's a hill in our neighborhood, and I noticed that, you know, I would huff and puff just a little bit, but now I have absolutely no problem. And I just know that I'm getting stronger, and that's a good feeling.

AUBREY: Her experience fits with what the science shows - the benefits of exercise begin the minute we start to move.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS HELLER'S "MOTION OF THE EDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.