New Research: Women Who Did This 2-3 Times Weekly Saw 30% Lower Risk of Death from Heart Disease

Updated: Mar. 11, 2024

A female cardiologist leading the study says the findings were impressive: “We don't have many things that reduce mortality in that way."

Toned arms and a slimmer waistline might be your motivation to exercise, but the benefits of the right workout could go far beyond your appearance.  A new study published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology in February 2024 recently made headlines because it suggested that women’s bodies reap greater rewards from exercising at the same level as men. Both sexes saw increasing benefits as they maintained or increased activity throughout life, but a gem hidden inside the data showed an especially exciting boost for women’s health if they engaged in one particular type of workout. 

Diving deeper into the study, NPR spoke with author Martha Gulati, MD, director of Preventive Cardiology at the Smidt Heart Institute in Los Angeles. Gulati noted that of the 400,000 or so people involved in the study, roughly 20% of the women engaged in weight training. The women who lifted weights or did resistance training saw extraordinary health benefits: “What surprised us the most was the fact that women who do muscle strengthening had a reduction in their cardiovascular mortality by 30%,” Gulati said to NPR. “We don’t have many things that reduce mortality in that way.”

Eric Shiroma, ScD, MEd, FACSM, a researcher at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, said that weightlifting could be uniquely important for women who tend to have less muscle. “It might be that this relative increase in strength [in women compared to men] is what’s driving this difference in benefit,” he told NPR.

The resounding benefit of weight training for women doesn’t discount the need for all people to incorporate cardiovascular-challenging exercises, however. Cardio and weight training should both be incorporated, said Gulati. Exercises that increase the heart rate and are moderately challenging also provided significant gains to both women and men. The risk of early death dropped by 24% in women and 18% in men, according to the study.

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Benefits of weight training as you age

Still, the study shows that 80% of women who exercise but don’t consider weight training are missing out on a huge longevity booster. Weight training has been proven by numerous studies to prevent issues with aging and, in some cases, alleviate troubling symptoms. For example, strength training can reduce fatigue and improve aches and pains associated with aging, such as pesky lower back pain. Resistance training can improve bone mass and reduce bone loss, which can prevent breakages during falls, one of the leading causes of injury and death in people over age 65 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Weight training can also improve your breathing and help you sleep better.

The benefits are not just internal, though; weight training can even make you look younger. One 2023 study suggested that weight training could be the path to radiant skin as you age. It showed that while exercise in general improved skin elasticity, weight training actually increased the thickness of the dermis layer, which led to more youthful-looking skin.

If you’re afraid of hitting the gym or don’t think you can handle heavy weight, another study showed that lighter weights could work just as well for building muscle. The important thing is to tax the muscle enough to induce growth. If you’re afraid of weight altogether, there are plenty of upper and lower body exercises that don’t require weights at all.