Six Ways Strength Training Benefits People With Chronic Health Conditions

Before you get too far into reading this article I would like to let you know that this is a broad article meant to give you an idea of what strength training could do for an individual with a chronic health condition. The content written below should be read knowing that every individual has different needs and there is no “one size fits all” approach to strength training. This isn’t a snuggie, it will not fit everyone and this article is not intended to do that. The goal of this article is to impart some of my wisdom on you and hopefully get you at least one nugget of information that you can take away and implement into your own life.

When you envision strength training, what do you picture? Do you see professional athletes throwing weights around? Or do you see someone playing candy crush while the bang out a few leg curls? Strength training does not mean the same thing to every person. Strength training can be done with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, suspension straps, and even body weight alone. The tools you have at your disposal to begin strength training are endless. Leaving you very little room to tell me that you cannot participate in a strength training program.

These are the six most beneficial aspects to strength training for the person with one or multiple chronic health conditions.

  1. Improved Joint Health: Contrary to popular belief, strength training tends to be more gentle on your joints than other exercise modalities. In fact, running can result in three to four times your body weight on the joints when your foot strikes the ground. So if you were looking for an excuse to stop running, you are welcome. The majority of strength training requires the body to have a solid base of support to elicit the strongest muscle contraction possible and therefore eliminates any pounding on your joints. Proper joint alignment and movement patterns are paramount when strength training. This can make or break the safety and efficacy of strength training for anyone. When done properly, strength training can strength the musculature surrounding a certain joint and provide relief to that joint. 
  2. Builds bone density: Decreasing bone density is something everyone will combat as they age, although, this problem is more common in women. Your body is constantly going through a process of breaking down bone and building it back up. As you age the breaking down will start to overtake the building back up. There are certain steps you can take to fight this process. One big step is implementing strength training into your life. When properly implemented, strength training will increase the bone building process to fight the amount of break down that is happening in the body. The most efficient way that strength training works to build bone density is by having weight on the body. What I mean by this is that if we have some form of weight (kettlebell, dumbbell, etc.) in your hands, that weight will be transferred through your spine and then through your legs to your feet. This weight through the body will create a response that send cells called osteoblasts to the bone to help create an infrastructure similar to that of a spider web that increases the density of the bone that was under the stress of the weight. The other method by which bone density is increased is through your tendons pulling on the bones to move your limbs. This effect is not as great as weight bearing, however, it may be a good intermediary step if you are new to exercise. This happens as a result of all movement. I generally do not advocate the use of machines when exercising, however, this is one way that they can help build bone density. 
  3. Facilitates uptake of glucose into muscles: This benefit is most specifically directed to those with diabetes or prediabetes. If you are someone who is dealing with elevated levels of glucose in your blood stream, it is time to pay attention. You may or may not be taking insulin to deal with your diabetes, as well as taking nutritional steps to reduce exacerbating the condition. Strength training has also been shown to be a positive step in the management of blood glucose. Your muscles function off of glucose and use it as fuel for contractions. When you engage in a strength training program your working muscles will extract the glucose out of your blood stream and use it to perform the exercise. This fact is true for all types of diabetes. I should mention that even though the focus of this benefit is on diabetics, these facts are true for all individuals of any health status. 
  4. Develop fast twitch muscle fibers: I want to give you a fair warning on this one. We are about to get a little more sciencey here. Let’s zoom in on your quadriceps muscle. Are you staring at your leg now? Good. Now we will zoom in further and look specifically at your rectus femoris (one of the four muscles that comprise your quad). Hopefully I haven’t lost you yet. We are looking at the very top part of your quad. This muscle is made up of muscle fibers, a lot of them. These many muscle fibers are not all created equal. Some of these fibers are considered slow twitch fibers. These are utilized when performing cyclical activities over an extended period of time, running is a good example of this. These fibers are great a using oxygen to continuously contract the muscle. Right next to these slow twitch fibers you may have some fast twitch fibers. These fibers can be tricky and as the name implies they are more beneficial in fast motions such as jumping. So you have a mix of slow and fast twitch fibers throughout your body. The amount of each fiber is different depending on your genes and the style of exercise you’ve been doing. For example a marathon runner has a bunch of slow twitch fibers and not so many fast twitch and the opposite would be true for a high jumper. I know you are wondering “why does this matter to me?” and it does, I promise. As you age, your body will start to lose these fast twitch fibers and this is very bad. Fast twitch fibers are the ones that will contract immediately if you trip and start to fall down, giving you precious reaction time to catch yourself before falling all the way down and potentially causing greater injury. Oh, and one additional benefit to these fibers that you’ll probably appreciate is that they have higher metabolic rates. This means they burn more calories even when you are resting. 
  5. Improved kinesthetic awareness: Would you consider yourself to be a clumsy person? You aren’t alone! As you age you’ll begin to have a harder time with balance. These are just facts. Your vision will begin to suffer as well as the loss of proprioreceptors. What the heck are those? Proprioreceptors are cells inside of your body that tell your brain where your limbs are in space. The jury is still out as to whether or not we can improve your proprioreception through exercise. However, we can teach your joints to coordinate better. I know what you are thinking, “sign me up!” but hold on just one second and let me explain how we do this. Strength training will generally require you to engage larger muscles across multiple joints in a specific sequence. The key here is the multiple joints and the specific sequence of the movement. We are getting all those limbs on the same page so that all your movements become more coordinated. You are going to find your muscles working together much more efficiently to do even the most mundane of tasks, such as squatting down to put on that new pair of shoes you just got as a reward for making it through your first week of strength training. 
  6. Limiting muscular atrophy in sedentary lifestyles: An unfortunate side effect of having a chronic health condition is the sedentary lifestyle that may accompany it. Treatments and medications can cause feelings of fatigue that can linger for days or weeks at a time. Fatigue can really suck and getting up and moving is not the easiest task for me to ask of you. For this reason it is import for the exercise you do engage in to be at a lower level of intensity. Depending on the severity of the condition you have you may be able to handle higher levels of intensity, this is highly dependent on you as the individual. Strength training lends itself to be the better option for most due to the rest intervals it provides. It also helps to maintain muscle fibers better than prolonged cyclical workouts such as biking, running, or swimming. I do not want you to interpret this as a knock against cardiovascular training. There is certainly a time and a place for it. However, I want to point out the benefits strength training has to offer for people living a more sedentary lifestyle.