This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH.
“Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” ~ Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby, 1873
With all the research and health information showing the benefits of physical activity, you’d think more people would do it. Those of us in the holistic health arena have been encouraging clients to become more active for decades. “Yet before the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control, not even 25% of Americans got enough exercise. This percentage was relatively stable until the pandemic, during which the overwhelming majority of the population decreased their exercise frequency,“ reports Nathan Coles, D.C., chiropractor, owner of Coles Chiropractic and Massage in North Carolina, and creator and instructor of the Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist Program at Trinity. So now, Dr. Coles suggests, it’s likely that even a lower percentage of the population exercises frequently.
As holistic health practitioners, we know how important exercise is for overall health. All forms of exercise are beneficial, with some types being more valuable in particular ways than others. In the not-so-distant past, cardiovascular conditioning was considered the holy grail of fitness activity (think walking, jogging, swimming, biking, etc.), with resistance training (performed with weights, resistance bands, or by moving your body weight) coming in a distant second. There is no doubt aerobic conditioning is important. That hasn’t changed, but in recent years the type of body considered attractive has changed. “The biggest driving force behind this trend [toward increased resistance training] is aesthetics,” says Coles. “Skinny used to be ‘in,’ and folks used to believe that chronic cardio would get them there.” Starting slowly after World War II, but largely during the 1980s, as bodybuilders came onto the scene and movie stars with hulking physiques made their debut, the population took notice. This led to more people becoming involved in strength training. Concurrently, he adds that fitness professionals discovered the myriad health benefits of resistance training and began recommending it more.
What’s so great about resistance training? The short answer is a lot! The following benefits explain why picking up dumbbells, resistance bands, or doing bodyweight exercise is a good idea for supporting your overall health. Be patient, though. Building muscle doesn’t happen overnight. Everyone reacts to training a little differently. According to Coles, it usually takes a couple of months of consistent resistance training and proper nutrition to notice meaningful muscle gains.
Benefits of Resistance Exercise
It’s well known that resistance training enhances strength and power, improves muscle tone, and decreases body fat. Lesser known are the benefits in the following list, and as long as it is, it’s not all-encompassing. It is, however, enough to illustrate why the goal of building more muscle tissue deserves a place in your holistic health routine.
Building muscle increases your body’s storage capacity for amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein and essential for life.
Skeletal muscle is a strong influencer of energy and protein metabolism throughout the body. “Muscle is a primary site of glucose uptake and storage, and it’s also a reservoir of amino acids stored as protein.”2 Your body releases amino acids from muscle tissue whenever the need arises anywhere in your body. For example, in acute or chronic diseases where dietary intake often decreases but metabolic needs increase, having a hearty supply of stored amino acids comes in handy since amino acids are required in multiple body processes such as tissue growth and repair, energy production, immune function, and nutrient absorption.8 When skeletal muscle is low, protein and energy availability are also low. When you add more skeletal muscle, you increase protein and energy availability.2
Increases blood flow to the brain, feeding the growth of new blood vessels and new brain cells courtesy of a hormone called BDNF, which also results in a reduced risk for neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a hormone produced inside nerve cells, essentially serves as “Miracle-Gro” for the brain by “fertilizing” brain cells to keep them healthy and functioning well. BDNF even stimulates the growth of new neurons by building and maintaining pathways known as circuits, which allow nerve impulses to travel. So, the more BDNF you have, the better!
Resistance exercise increases BDNF. A comparative 2016 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that both high intensity (3-5 repetitions with high weight) and high volume (10-12 reps with moderate weight) weight training significantly elevated BDNF. Moreover, BDNF elevations were recorded after just one bout of exercise but increased even more during a seven-week training program, even in young, experienced lifters.4 Other researchers have recently reported significant increases in BDNF in weight training subjects with neurodegenerative disorders.12 So, in healthy or compromised subjects, resistance exercise can boost the growth-producing and protective effects of BDNF.
Resists gravity to maintain and improve posture
Strengthening musculature that supports your trunk, such as the anterior and posterior core muscles and those that retract (pull together) your scapulae or shoulder blades, can improve your posture.7 Core exercises include curl-ups, the beginner Pilates roll-up, bicycles, cobra pose, and plank pose.13 Exercises to strengthen your scapular retractors include band pull-aparts or dumbbell bent-over rows.
Prevents excess movement of bones and joints to prevent injury and improve skeletal stability. Increases connective tissue strength.
Joint stability depends on several factors, including the shape of the joint itself as well as the strength and integrity of the surrounding cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Resistance training can improve the strength of muscles and connective tissue. The stronger these tissues are, the more control they’re able to exert over joint movement, thereby offering more stability and protection when needed.
Improves core strength, which decreases back pain
Weak core muscles can result in changes to the normal lumbar curve leading to an arched swayback posture. Strengthening core muscles (anterior and posterior trunk muscle groups - see exercises listed above under "Resists gravity to maintain and improve posture"), on the other hand, helps maintain correct posture and thus relieves the strain on the spine that can result in back pain.
Increases resting metabolic rate
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the number of calories your body burns at rest. So, anything that increases RMR equates to your body burning more calories even when you’re sitting on the couch. Due to its ability to increase metabolically active skeletal muscle, resistance training can increase RMR.9,10
Improves glucose metabolism
The benefits resistance training has for glucose metabolism have received much less attention than endurance training, yet the effects are significant. For example, in a 2019 comprehensive review study, researchers reported that whole-body insulin sensitivity improved by 10% to 30% following three to six months of moderate-intensity weight training.5 This is great news for all of us, but especially for people struggling to balance blood sugar.
Improves aerobic fitness
According to a 2017 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, resistance training improved aerobic fitness to a similar degree as aerobic training in subjects with coronary heart disease.6 Additionally, researchers found that when they combined resistance and aerobic training, subjects experienced aerobic fitness gains greater than with aerobic training alone.
Deceases GI transit time
Decreasing the amount of time it takes for food to move through the digestion and elimination process results in less time for your intestines to be exposed to toxic waste, which, in turn, supports colon health.15
Can improve mood, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve cognitive function
In a randomized controlled trial of 62 elderly individuals performing either a moderate or high-intensity resistance training program for 24 weeks, researchers reported that both exercise groups scored better than the control group who were performing no exercise on multiple evaluations. The factors evaluated in the trial included those assessing depression, mood disorders, anxiety, memory, concentration, general health, and vitality.3 Researchers in another study found that three weeks of high-intensity resistance training is an effective intervention for adults suffering from posttraumatic stress symptoms.14
Improves sleep quality
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, scientists found that resistance exercise significantly improved sleep quality whether you train in the morning, mid-day, or evening. Time to fall asleep, as well as the number of times waking up after falling asleep, were both significantly less in subjects who performed resistance exercises at different times of the day.1
Helps to maintain or improve daily living functional abilities
Maintaining functional mobility is an important aspect of healthy aging. Research has shown that resistance training not only improves skeletal muscle strength and endurance in aging populations but that increased strength and endurance translates to a reduction of age-related muscle loss known as sarcopenia and improvements in important aspects of daily living such as gait speed, static and dynamic balance, and fall risk reduction.10
Resistance Training Workouts
Are you ready to start building some muscle? Keep in mind that workouts should be tailored to individual capabilities, needs, restrictions, and goals, so it’s unwise to offer a one-size-fits-all sample program. Please consult a qualified fitness specialist or healthcare professional for advice on individualized training practices.
Once you’re ready to start resistance training, consider beginning slow with low weight by lifting dumbbells or barbells, which are the most common forms of resistance training. You can also reap health benefits using resistance bands, kettlebells, or bodyweight exercises.
If you need additional inspiration after speaking with your team of professionals, online resources offer workout ideas. “I really like fitnessblender.com videos,” says Coles. The website provides 635 free exercise videos, and if you go to the free video section, you can filter by body area, type of workout, difficulty level, duration, calories burned, and equipment required. If the video you select doesn’t include a warm-up and cool-down, be sure to add your own.
Tips for Success
Before you begin, check with your doctor if you have injuries or conditions that could be affected by exercise. As mentioned previously, seek guidance from a trained professional for individualized advice. Keeping those cautions in mind, resistance training performed correctly is one of the healthiest habits you can establish. In parting, we leave you with some suggestions to support your success.
To minimize muscle soreness, start slowly, giving yourself time to acclimate to new workouts and intensities. A little discomfort at first is expected, but be mindful of your body’s messages and adopt a long-term perspective. Just like going on a short-term crash diet won’t yield as much lasting success as adopting a new long-term nutrition-based lifestyle, pushing yourself too hard with exercise in the beginning is likely to lead to injuries and feeling exhausted rather than creating the strong, vibrant muscles possible with a well-constructed plan implemented over time. Coles also suggests a healthy, well-balanced diet yielding all the nutrients needed for recovery, such as essential amino acids, vitamin C, and zinc. Recovery support such as foam rolling, massage, or an Epsom salt bath to relieve muscle soreness are other good strategies, he says. Finally, he encourages adequate sleep to support recovery between workouts.
For maintaining motivation and focus, Coles recommends setting a specific short-term goal. “It’s difficult for many people to work out regularly without a specific goal or date in mind. Be it a vacation, a birthday, or some sort of competition, it’s important to have something to work toward,” he says. Planning workouts and healthy meals also go a long way toward success, Coles adds. “As Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, ‘If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.’”
Another important component of exercise longevity is choosing an exercise type that matches your personality so that you enjoy doing it. More aggressive or assertive people, for instance, may prefer aggressive, competitive sports, while more relaxed, laid-back types might be more comfortable with gentle exercises like walking, yoga, or Qigong. This piece focuses on resistance training, but you could still alter aspects of the workout to complement your personality style. For example, if you tend to be introverted, you may be more comfortable training at home alone. If you’re more extroverted, you might want to sign up for a class or at least go to a fitness facility to be around other people for camaraderie and support.
To learn more about the benefits of resistance training and how to implement an effective program safely, enroll in Trinity’s Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist Program.
1. Alley, J., et al. (2015). Effects of Resistance Exercise Timing on Sleep Architecture and Nocturnal Blood Pressure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(5), 1378-1385. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000750 .
2. Argiles, J.M., et al. (2016). Skeletal Muscle Regulates Metabolism via Interorgan Crosstalk: Roles in Health and Disease. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 17(9), 789-796. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamda.2016.04.019.
3. Cassilhas, R.C., et al. (2007). The Impact of Resistance Exercise on the Cognitive Function of the Elderly. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(8), 1401-1407. DOI: 10.1249/mss.0b013e318060111f.
4. Church, D.D., et al. (2016). Comparison of High-Intensity vs. High-Volume Resistance Training on the BDNF Response to Exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 121(1), 123-128. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00233.2016 .
5. Consitt, L.A., et al. (2019). Impact of Endurance and Resistance Training on Skeletal Muscle Glucose Metabolism in Older Adults. Nutrients, 11(11), 2636, DOI: 10.3390/nu11112636 .
6. Hollings, M, et al. (2017). The Effect of Progressive Resistance Training on Aerobic Fitness and Strength in Adults with Coronary Heart Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 24(12), 1242-1259. DOI: 10.1177/2047487317713329
7. Hrysomallis, C. (2010). Effectiveness of Strengthening and Stretching Exercises for the Postural Correction of Abducted Scapulae: A Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(2), 567-574. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c069d8.
8. Kubala, J. (2022, February 3). Essential Amino Acids: Definition, Benefits, and Food Sources. Healthline, Retrieved May 20, 2022. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/essential-amino-acids.
9. MacKenzie-Shalders, K., et al. (2020). The Effect of Exercise Interventions on Resting Metabolic Rate: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Sport Science, 38(14), 635-649. DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2020.1754716.
10. McKendry, J., et al. (2021). Resistance Exercise, Aging, Disuse, and Muscle Protein Metabolism. Comprehensive Physiology, 11(3), 2249-2278. DOI: 10.1002/cphy.c200029 .
11. Papa, E.V., et al. (2017). Resistance Training for Activity Limitations in Older Adults with Skeletal Muscle Function Deficits: A Systematic Review. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 12, 955-961. DOI: 10.2147/CIA.S104674 .
12. Ruiz-Gonzalez, D., et al. (2021). Effects of Physical Exercise on Plasma Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Neurodegenerative Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 128, 394-405. DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.05.025
13. Taylor, R.B. (2021). 6 Exercises for Better Posture. WebMD.com, https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/guide/better-posture-exercises.
14. Whitworth, J.W., et al. (2019). Feasibility of Resistance Exercise for Posttraumatic Stress and Anxiety Symptoms: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 32(6), 977-984. DOI: 10.1002/jts.22464
15. Winett, R.A. and Carpinelli, R.N. (2001). Potential Health-Related Benefits of Resistance Training. Preventive Medicine, 33(5), 503-513. DOI: 10.1006/pmed.2001.0909
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH has traveled a long and winding professional road that includes working as a teenage fine artist, later a personal trainer and wellness coach, a college professor and administrator in exercise science and education, a freelance natural health and fitness writer for national magazines, a property manager and interior designer for vacation and executive rental properties and most recently returning to the natural health arena while attending Trinity School of Natural Health to become a Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist and a Certified Master Herbalist.