Strong Muscles Can Mean a Longer Life

January 6, 2009
Michael J. Joyner, MD

Men with Strong Muscles More Likely to Survive Cancer, Heart Disease

Looking for more inspiration to hit the gym? Regular strength-building workouts may extend your life. Research suggests that building muscle strength is not only beneficial for your physical health and physique, it may actually help you to survive if you get a serious disease like cancer or heart disease.


In a clinical study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the University of South Carolina, and several other universities, researchers followed 8,762 men between the ages of 20 and 80. They assessed participants for muscle strength and aerobic fitness, using standard measures such as leg and bench presses and exercise tests on treadmills. Over time, 503 men died—145 from cardiovascular disease and 199 from cancer. The follow-up involved approximately 19 years of clinical visits for periodic health exams and counseling on diet, exercise and other lifestyle interventions.

In analyzing the data, researchers found risk of death reduced as follows…

For men with the highest levels of muscular strength, the study found a 29% reduced risk for death from cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke)…a 32% lower risk of death from cancer…and a 23% lower risk of death from any cause, as compared to men with the lowest level of muscle strength.

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Men in the intermediate muscle strength group had a 26% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease…a 28% lower risk of death from cancer…and a 28% lower risk of death from any cause, as compared with men with the lowest level of muscle strength.

The results were adjusted for age, physical activity, smoking and alcohol use, body mass index, other medical conditions and family history of cardiovascular disease. Findings were published in the July 1, 2008, issue of the British Medical Journal.

This study demonstrates once again that all-around workouts—resistance or strength training as well as aerobics—are essential to good health, notes Michael J. Joyner, MD, professor of anesthesiology, physiology and biomedical engineering and an exercise expert at the Mayo Clinic. He said that strength training is our strongest weapon against frailty, and frailty is the worst enemy of aging. Regular resistance training…

  • Maintains and strengthens muscle mass, which otherwise diminishes with age.
  • Relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure, reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Boosts metabolism and encourages muscles to use glucose more effectively, lowering your risk of excess weight gain and diabetes.

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Once you’re ready for working out, it can be as easy as doing push-ups, sit-ups and using hand weights in your own den.

One of Dr. Joyner’s favorite strength training exercises is the static wall sit…

  1. Stand about two feet in front of a wall and lean against it.
  2. Slide down until your knees are at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Hold for 20 to 60 seconds.
  4. Return to start and repeat several times. As you grow more comfortable, hold the squat at different levels to work lower body muscles in different ways.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends two strength-training sessions each week. For more advice on strength training, see the June 12, 2007, issue of Daily Health News. To learn how to perform specific resistance exercises, visit http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/growingstronger/.

It’s never too late to get started, says Dr. Joyner, who regularly sees patients in their 70s and even 80s gain strength and mobility when they begin working out. To be on the safe side, consult your doctor before undertaking any new fitness regimen.