Regular weight-bearing exercise is linked to a lower risk of death from any cause except cancer, according to research conducted in older adults and published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The results suggest that a weekly exercise routine that includes both weights and aerobic activities seems to have an even better effect.

Weight training vs aerobic exercise

The current physical activity guidelines for all adults they recommend a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or a minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equal combination of the two, often referred to as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity ( AFMV).

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All adults are also encouraged to incorporate activities that make work all major muscle groups. However, although aerobic exercise is consistently associated with a lower risk of death, it is unclear whether weight-bearing exercise might have similar effects.

In an attempt to fill this knowledge gap, the researchers set out to separately and jointly assess the potential impact of weight-bearing exercise and aerobic activities in the risk of death among older adults.

They did this based on participants in the prostate, lung, colorectal, and ovarian (PLCO) cancer screening trial. This trial began in 1993 and includes 154,897 men and women between the ages of 55 and 74 from 10 different cancer centers in the United States.

In 2006, 104,002 of the participants were also asked if they had exercised with weights in the last year and, if so, how often they had done so: from less than once a month to several times a week. They were also asked about the frequency and duration of moderate and vigorous intensity physical activity during the past year.

Moderate intensity was described as “lightly sweating activity or increased breathing and heart rate to moderately high levels” and vigorous activity as “activity strenuous enough to break a sweat or increase your breathing and heart rate to very high levels.

Lower risk of death from any cause except cancer

They were generated four activity groups based on total weekly AFMV minutes: (1) idle, 0 minutes; (2) insufficient aerobic AFMV, 1-149 minutes; (3) enough, 150 minutes or more of moderate activity, or an equivalent amount of vigorous activity; and (4) very active, 301 minutes or more of moderate activity, or an equivalent amount of vigorous activity.

In total, responses from 99,713 people were included in the final analysis, 28,477 of whom died during a mean of 9.5 years of follow-up. The mean age at the beginning of the follow-up period was 71 years, and the mean weight (BMI) was 27.8 kg/m2, which is defined as overweight.

Nearly 1 in 4 (23%) respondents stated that they had done some weight lifting activity; 16% said they regularly exercised with weights between one and six times a week. Nearly a third (32%) were aerobically active enough, meeting (24%) or exceeding (8%) the MVPA guidelines.

Both weight-bearing exercise and aerobic AFVM were independently associated with a lower risk of death from any causeas well as cardiovascular disease, but not cancer.

Overall, exercising with weights in the absence of MVPA was associated with a 9-22% lower risk of deathdepending on the amount: For example, using weights once or twice a week was associated with a 14% lower risk.

Similarly, among those who did not exercise with weights, aerobic MVPA was associated with a risk of death from any cause between a 24 and 34% lowercompared to those who declared not doing AFMV or exercising with weights.

The combination, the most optimal

But the lowest risk of death was seen among those who reported engaging in both types of physical activity. For example, the risk of death was between 41 and 47% lower among those who said they met more of the recommended weekly levels of AFMV and exercised with weights once or twice a week than among those who were physically inactive.

Educational level, smoking, BMI, race and ethnicity did not significantly change the observed associations, but gender did: the associations were stronger in women.

This is an observational study and as such cannot establish cause. Also, focused only on weights, but there are other types of muscle strengthening exercises, the researchers say, citing calisthenics, which includes push-ups and squats; the pilates; and plyometric exercises, which include jump ropes and burpees.

The use of weights can make the body slimmer: Total lean mass is independently associated with a lower risk of death, the researchers say by way of explanation for their findings. And if done in a gym, it can also be very social, another factor associated with a longer and healthier life.

“Our finding that mortality risk appeared to be lower for those who participated in both types of exercise provides strong support for current recommendations to participate in both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, they write. Older adults would likely benefit from adding weight-bearing exercises to their physical activity routines.”


Gorzelitz J, Trabert B, Katki HA, et al. Independent and joint associations of weightlifting and aerobic activity with all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial.. British Journal of Sports Medicine (2022). doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2021-105315