Pumping weights could help you live longer – how to start at any age

As new research reveals the life-extending impact of lifting weights, Imy Brighty-Potts asks an expert where you even begin.

Gymtimadation is real, especially if you’ve never entered the weights section of a gym – where everyone seems to know what they’re doing, and has muscles bulging out of their shirts. But pumping iron is about more than sculpting abs or biceps, according to new research it could actually help you live longer.

Academics at the US’s National Cancer Institute in Rockville examined data on almost 100,000 adults with an average age of 71 who gave information on their weightlifting activity. During the next 9.6 years there were 28,477 deaths. So the study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that adults who reported any weightlifting at all had a 9% lower “all-cause mortality risk”.

Weight training as a beginner can seem daunting though. So what exactly does it involve?

Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and director of Complete Pilates, says: “Strength and weight training is any type of exercise that involves your own body weight or equipment to build muscle mass, endurance and strength.

“However, some people are often put off by strength and weight training as they often associate it with body builders or are afraid of becoming ‘bulky’ – which is a misconception.

“This type of exercise is great for all ages and fitness levels and is a fantastic way to improve your overall health and fitness. From strengthening your bones to preventing injury and making your heart healthier. It can also benefit people with chronic health conditions, like obesity, arthritis or osteoporosis.”

But, how do you get into weightlifting if you have never tried it before, and what are the most important things to be aware of?

Don’t be intimidated

According to PT and founder of Ladies Who Crunch, Nancy Best: “Stepping into the weights area of a gym can be really daunting, particularly as a woman, when it remains a predominantly male environment. The most important thing to remember is everyone is focused on their own training, so whilst it might feel like all eyes are on you, they actually aren’t.”

Ask for help if you need it

“There should be a member of staff on duty to help you with a full induction of the area, so take the opportunity to ask questions, familiarise yourself with the layout and understand how the different pieces of kit can be used,” says Best.

Try it at home first if you perfer

“For lots of my clients, nervousness about lifting weights in a public gym is a barrier that stops them starting,” she adds. “I recommend investing in some simple pieces of kit at home, so you can master the key movement patterns in a space you feel comfortable in first. It’s really powerful seeing the transformation in my clients’ confidence when they feel ready to step into a gym.”

Start simple

Don’t go for the most complicated looking weights from the off.

“Dumbbells are the perfect introduction to weightlifting. They are clearly labelled, so you can make sure you’re not picking up something too heavy. They are also very versatile and accessible for everyone. Hex dumbbells are ideal, because they won’t roll off your mat and can take your bodyweight if you’re doing exercises like renegade rows,” says Best.

“I also recommend investing in a pack of resistance bands to help progress bodyweight movements and allow you chart your progress through the different ‘levels’.”

Lift depending on your goals

It should be personal to you.

“Lifting weights has a multitude of health benefits and is connected to lots of different fitness objectives. The duration of your workouts and amount of weight you are lifting needs to match your goal,” she says. If you want to build lean muscle, focus on hypertrophy training (moderate weight with moderare reps). “If you’re looking to build functional strength, your programme should be built around lifting heavy weights for lower repetitions.”

Age shouldn’t matter but recovery does

“No matter your age, make sure you’re building adequate recovery around your training. People tend to forget to do this when they start lifting weights, because it is lower impact than cardio training like running. From reducing injury risk, to supporting your hormonal health, dedicating some time to improving your mobility is key,” says Best.

Be consistant – but don’t go overboard

Best advises her clients to be realistic about their training volume. “Exercise is about building a strong, healthy body, [and being] fit for life. you will see more sustainable results from two or three consistent sessions a week than trying to fit in five sessions in one week, followed by one session the week after.”