It’s not just cardio anymore; the health benefits of resistance training

  • Published
  • By Guy Leahy
  • Health Promotion Flight


The health benefits of aerobic training are well documented. People who regularly engage in aerobic exercise have higher levels of cardiovascular fitness. They have lower blood pressure, body fat %, blood cholesterol and blood sugar. They also exhibit lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression and some cancers.

What about resistance training? Research on resistance training for health has lagged behind aerobic training until fairly recently. In the 1960’s-1970’s, aerobic training was considered far superior to resistance training for improving health, to the point that some popular books on aerobic training regarded resistance training as more-or less useless for becoming healthier. Since that time, however, a growing body of research, particularly over the last 20 years, has convincingly demonstrated that resistance training has important health benefits.  

Let’s start with high blood pressure.  Several studies have found that resistance training lowers both systolic pressure (the top number is the pressure in your arteries when your heart is beating) as well as diastolic pressure (the bottom number is the pressure in your arteries when your heart is not beating.) A recent review of previous studies found resistance training lowered systolic blood pressure by an average of 8.2 points, and diastolic blood pressure by an average of 4.1 points. These improvements are within the same range typically seen with blood pressure lowering medications.

Resistance training also has benefits for lowering blood lipids and cholesterol. Many studies have found that resistance training lowers blood lipids (triglyceride), total blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol).  In addition, resistance training increases concentrations of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol.) Resistance training also lowers levels of C-reactive protein, a protein linked to blood vessel inflammation, and raises levels of adiponectin, a fat-specific protein which is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

One of the most obvious effects of resistance training is an increase in lean muscle mass. This has several benefits for health.  For example, increasing muscle mass will increase resting metabolic rate (RMR). If you think of your body as a car, RMR is your body’s idling speed in calories.  It’s the amount of calories your car is burning, sitting in the garage with the engine running. Adding 10 pounds of muscle will raise your RMR by about 60 calories per day. That may not sound like much, but over a year, that’s an additional 21,000 calories your body will burn sitting on the couch.  Related to this is that resistance training can also help with the loss of body fat, particularly fat is which inside you (known as visceral fat). Resistance training can be an effective tool for dramatically reshaping body composition, by adding muscle while you simultaneously lose body fat.  Even older adults can add muscle.

Resistance training also has substantial benefits for treating or preventing type 2 diabetes. Resistance training improves insulin sensitivity, and can also help to lower blood glucose levels. Increases in muscle mass provide a greater capacity to store glucose in muscle, and to use glucose as a fuel. Resistance training can also lower blood levels of glycated hemoglobin (also known as HbA1c). An HbA1c test is used to determine the average blood sugar over the previous 2-3 months. Resistance training is at least as effective as aerobic training for lowering HbA1c, and some evidence suggests it may be better than cardio for this purpose. It’s important to know that a combination of resistance training and aerobic training is even better than either by itself!

Additional benefits of resistance training include increases in bone strength, as well as a reduced risk of falling in older adults.  Resistance training improves cognition, and a reduced risk of depression and anxiety. Resistance training can also improve functional capacity in subjects recovering from a heart attack, and a recent study found resistance training was associated with a 23 percent reduced risk of death from heart disease in men.  Resistance training is valuable for Airmen wanting to better their physical training test scores. One study documented that a 12 week combined resistance training/cycling program improved push-up/sit-up scores by 21 percent, reduced waist circumference by 1.5 inches, and shortened run times by an average of 35 seconds!

If you are interested in learning more about resistance training, contact Health Promotion Flight at 846-1186. You can also check us our on Facebook (KAFB Health Promotion) and follow us on Twitter (@KirtlandHP).