There’s a conventional belief, particularly among women that to improve your health and fitness and lose weight, cardio is best. Strength training, on the other hand, is often sidelined as many women feel that it will make them ‘bulky’.

Well, based on the findings from a study published in January 2017 in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, trying to make an either-or decision may be short-changing your results.

Insights from landmark Women’s Health Study

A research team led by Eric Shiroma analysed data from the Women’s Health Study (WHS), which was a randomised trial conducted from 1992 to 2004 with 39,876 healthy female participants aged between 47 and 98.

During the WHS, the female participants completed health questionnaires every six months during the first year, and then annually thereafter. One of the questions posed to the respondents required that they estimate how much weight lifting or strength training they had done per week over the year.

In the Shiroma study, the researchers sought to use this information to determine the relationship between strength training and type-2 diabetes risk and cardiovascular disease. What they found points to a significant increase in health among those women who trained with weights.

Better health benefits from combined exercise approach

From the research findings, the study authors determined that women who reported participating in any amount of strength training were:

  • More likely to have a lower BMI
  • More likely to eat healthfully
  • Less likely to be a smoker compared with women who did not participate in strength training.

As a result, participation in any strength training was associated with a 30% reduction in type-2 diabetes and a 17% reduction in cardiovascular disease rates compared with women who didn’t lift.

However, ultimately it was determined that those who engaged in both strength training and aerobic activity experienced the greatest reduction in type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, compared with either aerobic activity alone or no training.

Compared with women who did no form of exercise, women who participated in both strength training and did 120 minutes or more of aerobic activity experienced a 65% reduction in the rate of type 2 diabetes. The women who skipped the gym and did only 120 minutes or more of aerobic activity experienced a 48% reduction.

A similar trend emerged in relation to the prevalence of cardiovascular disease as women who participated in both strength training and 120 minutes or more of aerobic activity had the largest reduction in their rate of cardiovascular disease, at 39%, whereas women who participated in aerobic activity alone experienced a reduction of just 21%.

Metabolic benefits from more muscle

According to researchers, the reasons for the incredible health benefits of weight training include the fact that increased muscle mass and a reduced body mass index (BMI) potentially leads to greater insulin sensitivity and more efficient glucose transport and metabolism.

Although endurance training has also been shown to improve glucose metabolism, the larger gains in muscle tissue from strength training may explain the greater risk reduction for type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease among those engaging in aerobic activities alone.

However, the study authors concluded that additional research is needed to determine the “optimum dose and intensity of muscle-strengthening activities for the reduction of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates.”