Go For The Gold, It May Prolong Your Life

With the Olympics in full swing, I cannot help but marvel at the strength, power, skill, and commitment of the athletes. Many of these men and women seemed destined for sports from an early age, while others trained hard to beat the odds and become world-class athletes. Most of us watching the games from the comfort of our own homes can only envy the athletes; we can only imagine what it must be like to have a gold medal placed around our neck and have our national anthem played just for us. But, alas, the glory fades and the games will come to an end in a matter of a few short weeks. The gold medals will be displayed in trophy cases and the athletes will move on to the next challenge, be it another sporting event, or the next stage in their lives. Whatever they choose to do, we may have another reason to envy them: they will likely live longer than most of us.

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal reported that muscle strength is inversely associated with mortality in men. This prospective cohort study followed nearly 9,000 men, aged 20 to 80, for nearly 19 years. The study concluded that increased muscle strength led to decreased death from all causes, as well as decreased death from cancer. The association between muscle strength and death from cardiovascular disease was inversely related, but not statistically significant once the researchers accounted for cardiovascular fitness levels. Personal data was adjusted for confounding factors, including age, physical activity, smoking status, alcohol intake, body mass index, family history, and comorbid disease states. The resulting relationship between muscle strength and lower risk of death was consistent across all age groups, as well as in normal and overweight men.

We have known for many years that exercise and fitness play a role in maintaining healthy, active lives, and that aerobic and resistance training improves the prognosis of cardiovascular disease, diabetes complications, and many types of cancer. However, previous studies that have related muscle strength to death rates have used a handgrip test to assess muscular strength, had short follow-up periods, or examined only older adults. The current study used single-repetition maximum-weight bench press and leg press to quantify muscle strength. Cardiovascular fitness was measured by a maximum-effort treadmill test. Further, participants included men in several age groups and the study employed a long follow-up period.

Muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness were moderately correlated in this study, and, as expected, men with high levels of both muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness had lower death rates than men with lower fitness and strength levels. Still, the association between muscle strength and death was not completely independent of cardiovascular fitness, highlighting the importance of cardiovascular fitness in reducing the risk of death and disease.

The underlying mechanism of muscle strength on reducing mortality is not completely understood. It may be due to the muscle strength itself, the type of muscle or its configuration, or simply a consequence of regular physical activity. Muscle type and configuration have genetic components, but regular physical activity, including resistance training, influences overall muscle strength as well. Most practitioners recommend resistance training 2 to 3 times weekly as a complement to aerobic training programs.

While most of us may not be the examples of athletic prowess that we see in the Olympic games, we should strive to maintain at least moderate levels of muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. We may never win a gold medal, but we just might live longer.


Ruiz, J.R., Sui, X., Lobelo, F., Morrow, J.R., Jackson, A.W., Sjostrom, M., Blair, S.N. (2008). Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. BMJ, 337(jul01 2), a439-a439. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a439

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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