GIVE ME STRENGTH
Words by PETA BEE
Illustration by NOMA BAR
Experts believe that building up your physical strength brings with it a host of other benefits, from lowering anxiety to boosting your energy levels
T here’s a widely accepted truism in elite sport that “strength breeds strength" Top athletes who hone their bodies to become stronger through training get a head start on their rivals on two counts. Not only are their bodies more movement-efficient, requiring less effort to dart around nimbly and quickly, but this physical superiority also boosts their strength of mind. With a more powerful physique, they feel stronger mentally. At the top level, that’s a win-win scenario.
But strength and its benefits are not exclusive to sports people and even marginal gains can bring colossal rewards for the rest of us. And it doesn’t necessarily mean hulking around heavy weights at the gym. Improvements in physical strength can be achieved just by moving your body against its own resistance, with exercises such as push-ups, squats and lunges, hopping, skipping and star jumps. For those who are nervous about getting stronger, there are tools of the trade that are infinitely less off-putting than kettlebells and weights. Think elastic resistance bands and “strength" paddles for the swimming pool. “Anything that forces your body to work against a resistance will build strength," says personal trainer Matt Roberts, author of Younger, Fitter, Stronger (Bloomsbury Sport). “There is nothing more worthwhile."
Of course, all of the above requires a different kind of strength – strength of purpose, and the willpower to train regularly. But it’s well worth it, whatever our age – and arguably more so as we head into middle age. Past the age of 40, our muscle mass naturally declines at a rate of about 1lb per year – a process called sarcopenia – and unless we attempt to offset the decline, the consequences can be less than favorable. For most people, this dwindling muscle mass is replaced by more body fat and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. With simple daily strategies to reduce this downward spiral – climbing more stairs, carrying heavy shopping bags and hopping on the spot, for example – some of the side effects can be halted. “Being physically stronger is hugely important as we get older," says Roberts, “and it needn’t be as daunting as many people think. Simple movements develop physical strength and, as your muscles become stronger, so your functional movement improves and everything you do seems less of an effort."
And added muscular strength brings huge benefits for the mind. “With the significant changes to your body shape comes a huge boost in energy levels and self-esteem," Roberts says. Most people are aware of the role aerobic exercise can play in our mental wellbeing. We’ve all heard about the endorphins that flood our systems when we embark on even gentle endurance activity – cycling, swimming or jogging – for 20 minutes or longer. But scientists are beginning to understand more about the effect exercise has on the mind and are now sure that strength training also has a positive impact.
Take a 2018 paper published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in which researchers from the University of Limerick in Ireland set out to determine whether resistance training might be beneficial for our mood and outlook. Brett Gordon, the paper’s lead author, and his team looked at the results of 33 studies on weight training and depression and found that people who worked at getting physically stronger saw profound improvements in their low mood and fewer feelings of worthlessness. What’s more, it didn’t seem to matter how much or how little strength training the participants did – benefits occurred whether people lifted weights twice or five times a week. And while pre-existing physical strength was important, it wasn’t a decisive factor.
In other words, you don’t need to be gunning for bulky biceps to experience an emotional boost; just going through the process of getting stronger seemed to help ward off negative feelings and thoughts. Strength exercise has also been shown to have a powerful effect on lowering levels of anxiety. When researchers at the University of Georgia asked a group of women with Generalized Anxiety Disorder to take part in resistance exercise, aerobic workouts or nothing at all, they found lifting weights twice a week produced mental health benefits similar to the effects of antidepressant drugs.
For this type of training to be fully effective, you have to keep at it, getting stronger as the weeks and months go by. But then sit back and watch as your health soars. Stronger muscles have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, better blood sugar control and reduced layers of body fat. You will look good, feel good and potentially add years to your life. Doesn’t that make it well worth the effort you’ll be putting in?