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Weightlifting keeps age-related diseases and conditions at bay for longer. Anand Singh trains with weights five times a week at House of Fitness in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Weight training keeps you lean and boosts brain and heart health, studies find. This Hong Kong banker doesn’t need convincing

  • People who exercise with weights are leaner and have a lower risk of heart disease and cognitive decline as they age, according to recent studies
  • Anand Singh began lifting weights at the age of 25 and says it improves his mood, concentration and sleep. He intends to continue weight training as he ages

Anand Singh began lifting weights seven years ago, when he was 25. His new job in the banking and financial services industry had left him with little time to play sports – his usual way of staying active – so he decided to start weight training, which he felt would give him more fitness and stress-busting benefits than cardiovascular exercise without having to give up as much time.

Now he weight trains about five times a week, for 60 to 90 minutes each session, at House of Fitness in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan neighbourhood. He works with a trainer who helps him get his posture and lifting techniques right.

“I focus on my back, chest and abdominals the first two days, take a one-day break, work my chest, arms and legs on the next three days, and then take a break on the seventh day,” says Singh, who was born in India and moved to Hong Kong in 2014.

“My muscle strength has definitely increased over the years and I can lift heavier weights now. I gradually went from lifting 37.5kg to 105kg doing barbell squats, 65kg to 117kg doing dead lifts, and 45kg to 70kg with the bench press weights.”

Anand Singh training with personal trainer Karan Singh (in red) at House of Fitness in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Not surprisingly, Singh’s physique has changed dramatically. Friends have commented that he looks stronger and more “ripped”. In addition, he says that lifting weights regularly has given him more confidence and improved his mood, concentration and sleep.

By incorporating weight training into his workout routine now, Singh is protecting himself against developing serious health conditions when he’s older. For example, a recent study found that lifting weights might improve cognitive function and reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, which is commonly known to affect people who are 65 and older.

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According to researchers at The University of Sydney in Australia, just six months of regular, high-intensity weightlifting may significantly increase activity in some parts of the brain and protect certain subregions of the hippocampus against shrinkage and degeneration. The hippocampus is a complex structure in the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory.

The researchers noted that this protection lasted up to 12 months after the weight training had stopped. The results of their study were published in February 2020 in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical.

Weight training may also help protect your heart as you age. A large-scale study of adults in Greece revealed that men who had relatively large amounts of lean muscle as they approached middle age had an 81 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease 10 years later, compared to men who had less muscle mass. (Very few women in the study developed heart disease, possibly because women generally tend to get heart disease about a decade later than men).

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This might be because muscle mass volume is associated with higher levels of physical activity, which helps to protect the heart. Increased muscle mass also has positive metabolic effects, such as improved blood sugar control and less bodily inflammation – factors that the researchers suspected helped the well-muscled subjects keep heart disease at bay. The findings from this observational study were published in January 2020 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Weight training can help you stay trim by shrinking fat cells. A study, published in May in The FASEB Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, found that after weight training, muscle cells release particles called extracellular vesicles that instruct fat cells to start metabolising. This is encouraging news for people who find it hard to lose fat or maintain a lean physique when they get older.

Amy Chan Wing-yee, a physiotherapist at Hong Kong’s Matilda International Hospital, says muscle strength starts to decline after we turn 50. This may progress into sarcopenia, a condition that’s characterised by the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass and function.

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“As we age, we may also experience physiological and functional decline, which increases our risk of disability and frailty,” she explains. “Research has found that working out with weights regularly can help elderly people build their strength, allowing them to maintain their independence and feel more vital.

“It can also improve bone mass, preventing osteoporosis, and enhance resting metabolic rate, helping us with weight management.”

If you’ve never lifted weights before, it’s not too late to start. Chan recommends going with an intensity of 60 to 70 per cent of one repetition maximum, or RM. RM refers to the heaviest weight you can lift with maximum effort in a single repetition. A single set of 10 to 15 reps is effective in improving strength in middle-aged individuals and novice exercisers, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Chan suggests working each major muscle group two or three days a week and to vary the types of resistance exercise by switching between equipment, such as dumbbells and resistance bands, and your body weight. Don’t train the same muscle group two days in a row – give yourself a break of at least 48 hours to avoid putting too much strain in one area.

Amy Chan Wing-yee is a physiotherapist at Matilda Hospital. Photo: Matilda Hospital

She advises against overtraining, as it may increase the likelihood of muscle injury, something that’s common among people who are new to weight training. Another serious complication of high-intensity training is rhabdomyolysis, when the muscles become damaged due to overexertion. She points out that muscle damage from overexertion may harm kidney function.

“People with uncontrolled high blood pressure or heart disease should avoid weight training,” Chan adds. “If you have cardiovascular problems, diabetes or current musculoskeletal problems but they’re under control, you should still consult your doctor or physiotherapist before starting training.”

For variety, Singh also jogs and does high-intensity interval training whenever he can. Despite the occasional soreness he experiences when he pushes his body too far, he says that he can’t see himself ever stopping weight training, especially after reaping its physical, mental and emotional benefits for so long.

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“I intend to continue working out with weights for the rest of my life, because I believe it will keep me healthy, trim, strong and alert as I make my way into my 40s and beyond,” he says.

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