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Lift your game: the undervalued role of strength training in chronic disease prevention

USQ's Dr Jason Bennie says the message around physical activity needs more focus on strength training.

Public health researchers have urged political leaders and health policy makers to do more to promote the importance of strength training to good health.

Strength training – also called resistance and weight training – includes activities that build muscle strength, such as weightlifting, push-ups and squats.

Dr Jason Bennie, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Southern Queensland, said there was growing scientific evidence of links between muscle-strengthening exercise and positive health outcomes.

In a new review paper published in Sports Medicine - Open today (August 27), Dr Bennie and his colleagues argued that the public health message around physical activity needed more focus on strength training.

“When people think of physical activity, they often think of activities like jogging, cycling and swimming, while strength training tends to be overlooked or ignored,” Dr Bennie said.

“The main reason is historically most physical activity promotion has been focused on aerobic exercises, but what many people don’t realise is the crucial role strength training can play in chronic disease prevention and management.

“Our review clearly shows that the benefits of strength exercise is now at a level where it deserves to be considered just as important to our overall health and wellbeing.”

Some of those benefits are associated with cardiovascular, bone and mental health, but in many cases strength exercise is superior to aerobic activity for emerging health conditions such as treating muscle wasting, cognitive decline and maintaining physical function.

“This is particularly important when considering the current demographic trend of an aging population that declines in muscle mass, function and cognitive function is among the key public health challenges in our time,” Dr Bennie said.

Dr Bennie said less than 30 per cent of adults meet the World Health Organization’s physical activity recommendation of two muscle-strengthening sessions each week.

With many Australians spending more time closer to home and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said people should consider strength training as suitable alternative to aerobic exercise.

“Nearly twice as many people do some level of aerobic exercise compared to strength exercise which indicates that only part of the message is getting across,” he said.

“There needs to be a shift in people’s attitudes towards strength training, and start to challenge some of the negative stereotypes attached to it.

“We often hear people say they don’t have enough time, fear they may be injured or find gyms to be intimidating, but most strength exercises can be done at home and require minimal equipment.”

While Dr Bennie said people need to take more responsibility for their own health, he’s called on political leaders to do some of the heavy lifting.

“If government health departments expect meaningful increases in strength exercise, it is incumbent upon them to provide supportive environments,” he said.

“Some strategies could include providing affordable access to community fitness centres, home-based equipment and fitness trainers, as well as an increased emphasis on strength training in future health promotions.”

The review paper ‘Muscle-strengthening Exercise Epidemiology: a New Frontier in Chronic Disease Prevention’ can be accessed here

Man woman gym
Dr Jason Bennie.