13 Health Conditions That Strength Training Can Improve

Strength training — also known as resistance training — is a form of exercise that builds and strengthens muscles. You're participating in strength training when you lift weights or complete exercises that use your body for resistance (via Better Health Channel). 

Strength training is so much more than building muscle to show off. Strong muscles are necessary for practically every bodily function and system. For instance, walking the dog, getting out of bed, and chewing your food all require muscle. Muscles also keep your digestive tract moving and your heart pumping blood throughout your body (via the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases).

In fact, you might be surprised at everything strength training can do for your body, mind, and health, including improving your cardiovascular health and potentially helping you live longer (via the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). Continue reading to learn about several health conditions that a regular resistance training regimen could help you overcome or improve.

Building strength lowers blood sugar for people with diabetes or prediabetes

If you have type 2 diabetes, your body doesn't respond to insulin the way it should. Therefore, you might see glucose spikes throughout the day or maintain higher-than-average glucose levels (via the American Diabetes Association). Strength training can actually work to lower blood sugar, allowing people with type 2 diabetes to see more even glucose levels. 

As exercise psychologist Nick Occhipinti explains to Everyday Health, "As we go through a strength-training workout, we use stored muscle glycogen for fuel. Once this stored muscle glycogen runs out, we start to mobilize extra glycogen from the liver and from the blood. This helps to directly decrease blood glucose as well as deplete stored muscle and liver glycogen stores, giving blood glucose a place to go next time we eat."

This phenomenon could also help people with prediabetes, a condition characterized by higher-than-average blood sugar that doesn't quite meet the guidelines for diabetes, but could eventually lead to it. According to UCLA Health, strength training can help the muscles take in glucose more efficiently, with research noting that exercising one hour before eating can yield the best results.

It has several benefits for people at risk for heart disease

As you might imagine from its name, cardiovascular exercise is key to cardiovascular health. But if you're skipping all forms of strength training in favor of only getting exercise by way of cardio, you're doing your heart a disservice. In fact, some research suggests that strength training could be even more important for your heart than cardio.

Research presented in the 2018 American College of Cardiology Latin America Conference found that static exercise (like strength training) more effectively reduced cardiovascular risk symptoms such as high cholesterol and being overweight than dynamic exercise (like cardio) did. As statistical epidemiologist and lead researcher Maia P. Smith explains, "Both strength training and aerobic activity appeared to be heart healthy, even in small amounts, at the population level. However, static activity appeared more beneficial than dynamic, and patients who did both types of physical activity fared better than patients who simply increased the level of one type of activity." 

In summary, getting both cardio and strength training into your routine is your best bet for heart health, but don't underestimate the importance of building muscle.

Strength training could ease depression and anxiety

Have you ever finished a workout and experienced an overwhelming feeling of joy or satisfaction? Research is beginning to show the science behind the link between exercise and better mental health. According to Michael Otto, a professor of psychology at Boston University, "People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. There is much less awareness of mental health outcomes — and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action" (via the American Psychological Association).

A 2018 meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials published in JAMA Psychiatry found some promising evidence that strength training can reduce symptoms of depression. The meta-analysis studied people with depressive symptoms and without. Overall, the trials suggested that people without depressive symptoms were less likely to get depressed when they participated in strength training, and those with depression who strength trained saw improved symptoms and moods.

Anxiety could also get better with a strength-training regimen. A 2020 study published in Scientific Reports found that an eight-week resistance training program lowered anxiety symptoms "significantly."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Reduce back pain with a regular strength-training routine

Regular back pain sufferers could find relief when they add strength training to their usual exercise routine. In a story for Women's Health, a young woman named Cali Shadburn recounted a severe back injury she experienced after falling down the stairs in her home. In lieu of surgery, Shadburn decided to try strength and balance training with a trainer named Joel. After training weekly using exercises to strengthen her core and back, Shadburn found some relief relatively quickly. A few weeks later, her "pain had drastically improved," and over time, the pain was gone. Shadburn credits her consistent strength training routine with Joel for her ability to forego surgery in favor of a more natural healing method.

Research supports strength training's benefits for the back. A 2016 study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation explored the effects of strength training on patients with chronic back pain. The participants completed a 12-week exercise program with 50-minute strength training exercises twice weekly. Using various questionnaires, scales, and evaluations, the researchers found that strength training significantly improved lumbar function and pain. Interestingly, a group that combined strength training with walking had the most improved pain levels.

Strength training could positively impact people with multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a nervous system disease that can become much worse throughout a patient's life. The condition causes the immune system to attack a protective nerve coating, which can eventually cause irreversible damage to the nerves and affect how the brain and nerves send signals to one another. Common symptoms of MS are numbness or weakness in the body, problems with coordination, vision problems, and fatigue (via the Mayo Clinic).

Some physicians may suggest resistance training as a possible therapy for patients living with MS. A 2017 article in BMC Neurology notes that strength training can improve flexibility, coordination, movement, and fatigue for those with MS. Plus, becoming more flexible through muscle strength and training could decrease muscle spasms that people with MS often face. A 2017 study in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal also found that MS patients participating in resistance exercise experienced thickening of the brain cortex, "indicating that [progressive resistance training has] a neuroprotective or even neuroregenerative effect in relapsing-remitting MS."

A regular strength training routine could prevent bone loss

Healthy bones are protectors of our bodies. They secure important organs like the heart and brain, and allow us to move in ways that keep us healthy. The NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center lists several potential risk factors for bone disease, including a poor diet, being underweight, and smoking. Another possible cause of bone loss is not getting enough physical activity, as exercise keeps bones strong.

Harvard Health Publishing says that strength training can slow bone loss and, sometimes, improve bone density as it encourages the stimulation of bone cells. Also, strength training targets bones that are most likely to break, like those in the back and arms, while building coordination and balance to prevent future falls.

A 2018 article in Endocrinology and Metabolism pulled together strong evidence supporting the link between strength training and bone health. For instance, some research shows that the mechanical load placed on bones during resistance training results in stronger bones over time, with the best results seen in youth who participate in weight training. Additionally, researchers write that resistance training, "either alone or in combination with other interventions, may be the most optimal strategy to improve the muscle and bone mass in postmenopausal women, middle-aged men, or even the older population. "

Strength exercises could relieve arthritis pain and stiffness

Arthritis causes stiff and painful joints. Unfortunately, the condition may make some people fearful of exercise because they're afraid it will worsen their pain. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise is crucial for people with arthritis to keep themselves mobile and improve their symptoms.

In fact, the Arthritis Foundation recommends strength training for people with arthritis after consulting with their physician. Most people can start with simple exercises for beginners, completing up to three 30-minute strength-training sessions each week as their bodies allow. According to the Arthritis Foundation, people following this schedule could increase their strength by as much as 40% within six months.

To make the most of your workout sessions, Harvard Health Publishing suggests scheduling your workouts during periods when your symptoms aren't as present. You might also consider requesting the help of a personal trainer who can come up with an exercise plan built for your needs and capabilities.

People with Parkinson's disease increase strength, endurance, and cognition

Parkinson's disease is a brain-affecting disorder characterized by limb stiffness, tremors, and balance problems (via Parkinson's Foundation). Several types of physical activity may be able to help people with Parkinson's disease see an improvement in symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. For instance, exercising using left and right patterns, like lifting the left arm while lifting the right knee, can help patients make important brain-nerve connections to keep both sides of their brains working together. Strength training is also recommended as part of a regular exercise routine to keep muscles strong and coordinated. Swimming can be an excellent form of resistance training to improve strength without causing pain (via Johns Hopkins Medicine).

An author manuscript published in a 2021 edition of Seminars in Neurology explores the many benefits of physical therapy and strength training for patients with Parkinson's disease. Reviewed evidence shows improved mobility, enlarged muscle fibers and muscles, and improved muscle stimulation following resistance training. The author points out that, based on evidence, some people may see better results from exercise than others, but research supports the idea that strength training could improve early signs of Parkinson's disease.

Strength training targets obesity

Both cardio and strength exercises are important to add to your workout regimen if you want to lose weight, although you might feel like the intense burn you feel while doing cardio can get you there faster. However, strength training leads to a more consistent approach to weight loss as you build muscle to burn more calories throughout the day, even when you're sitting on the couch (via Healthline).

A 2010 review in the Journal of Obesity points out evidence noting that resistance training is often related to decreased fat mass and increased lean body mass. One study discussed in the review found that a calorie-restricted diet for obese men was more successful when combined with either cardio or strength training regimens.

Another study published in a 2013 edition of the International Journal of Cardiology found that high-intensity resistance training resulted in the fastest reduction of visceral fat loss in participants. Visceral fat surrounds organs in the abdominal area and is linked to health conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, slower metabolism, and even breast cancer in women (via Harvard Health Publishing).

You could breathe better, even with COPD

A 68-year-old woman with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) asked Harvard Health experts if weight training is a good exercise for her to use to lose weight, as she was finding herself short of breath quickly when using an exercise bike. The answer? "Getting in shape involves working both your heart (cardiovascular exercise) and your muscles (strength training). One of the important benefits of strength training is that it makes your muscles more efficient at extracting oxygen from your blood."

When oxygen can more easily come from your blood, you could improve breathing problems you have, including COPD, a condition that affects the airways and makes it more difficult to breath (via the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute). In a 2017 study published in the Egyptian Journal of Chest Diseases and Tuberculosis, researchers studied how resistance training affected patients with COPD. They found "significant improvements" in the patients' shortness of breath and health-related quality of life.

Strength training could reduce your risk of falls

Plenty of research points to the benefits of strength training in improving your overall coordination and steadiness, which could reduce the risk of falls that could be especially severe for older adults. For instance, a 2013 review in Rejuvenation Research explored 20 studies focusing on resistance, multi-component, endurance, and balance training. Evidence from multiple studies suggests that physical training can enhance balance and improve gait in older adults. Another meta-analysis published in 2019 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that exercise can reduce the risk of falling by 23%.

Of course, older adults aged 65 and older have the highest risk for falls (per the CDC). At this age, some strength training can become more difficult. Certified exercise physiologist Gavin McHale tells Silver Sneakers that using equipment isn't necessary. Instead, focus on using body weight for resistance, working up to 10 to 15 reps when you feel comfortable doing so.

It can improve a lack of flexibility

Flexibility is crucial to reduce the potential of injuries during and outside periods of exercise. It can also improve your posture. Flexibility can decrease if you're not physically active enough, putting you at a potentially higher risk of injury and falls as you age (via Ace Fitness).

Some exercises target flexibility, like yoga and pilates. However, these exercises may not interest you enough to add them to your exercise routines. Fortunately, strength training can also improve flexibility. Dr. Lem Taylor tells Men's Journal, "It's a common myth that if you lift weights, your muscles, and range of motion, start to shorten. That can happen, and it's purposeful for some people, but the muscle has no desire to get shorter, so if you're training correctly, it's unlikely that flexibility will decrease, and it may actually improve." Taylor adds that when you use proper form during strength exercise, you work through a full range of motion, which keeps your flexibility intact and could boost joint flexibility.

A strength training program may combat cognitive frailty

Brain health is just as important as physical health, and strength training may improve that, too. Research has found that patients living with cognitive function problems and cognitive frailty have had at least some improvement in their symptoms thanks to resistance training.

One randomized control trial in a 2018 edition of the Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging defines cognitive frailty "as the presence of both physical frailty and cognitive impairment in the absence of dementia." Study participants had a mean age of almost 74 years and fit the definition of experiencing cognitive frailty. After a four-month exercise regimen, researchers found significant improvements in cognitive processing speed and executive function. A more recent meta-analysis in a 2022 edition of Aging & Mental health saw higher cognitive function scores in older adults who participated in strength training. The participants were characterized as either cognitively healthy or cognitively impaired. The cognitively healthy group also significantly improved short-term memory, indicating a potentially preventative benefit of strength training.