Even just 30 minutes each week may make a difference!
Shot of a young woman working out with weights at home
Credit: Getty Images / jeffbergen

A new review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that doing as little as 30 minutes of muscle-strengthening activity per week could reduce the risk of dying from any illness, including heart disease and cancer, by 10% to 20%.

The research reviewed 16 studies with participants in the United States, England, Scotland, Australia and Japan who ranged in age from 18 to 97. All of the studies examined the association between muscle-strengthening activities and overall health in adults without severe health conditions. The reviewers found the maximum risk reduction—10% to 20%—among participants who did 30 minutes to an hour of muscle-strengthening activity each week.

More specifically, the reviewers determined that muscle-strengthening activities were associated with a 17% lower risk for diabetes, with the incidence of type 2 diabetes "sharply decreasing" when participants performed up to 60 minutes of muscle-strengthening activity per week. The researchers added that the relationship between strengthening exercises and diabetes has to do with muscle mass, "which has been identified as the major tissue in glucose metabolism."

When we checked in with registered dietitian Rebecca Toutant, a certified diabetes care and education specialist, about the best exercises for people with diabetes, she explained that strength training "creates more insulin receptors, providing more opportunity for blood sugar to go somewhere and not get stuck in the bloodstream." That means stronger muscles make it a little easier to improve your blood sugar control. 

Researchers found that there was no relationship between muscle strengthening and some site-specific cancers, like colon, kidney, bladder and pancreatic cancer. But there was a link between strengthening exercises and lung cancer, the risk for which may go down 10% when you add some muscle-strengthening time to your week.

Muscle-strengthening activity focuses on your musculoskeletal system more so than aerobic or cardio exercise. The obvious examples would include resistance training and calisthenics, both of which were included in the studies used in this review. But the reviewers added that there are some unconventional ways of getting in your strengthening time, like carrying heavy loads or doing heavy gardening. (Gardening has lots of other health benefits as well, like lowering stress, supporting your brain health and fighting heart disease.)

While further studies are needed to come to a final conclusion, the researchers suggested that combining muscle strengthening with aerobic exercise would only lead to further health benefits. Aerobic exercise—including going for a nice walk—also has lots of benefits, like weight loss and supporting your brain health, so a little bit of both is a great way to support your overall health.

Bottom Line

This new review of 16 studies found that doing muscle-strengthening exercises—even for just 30 minutes each week—could lower your risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes by 10% to 20%. Get started with some of these strength-training exercises for better health, especially if you're looking to improve your heart health or keep an eye on your blood sugar.