Few people dispute the benefits of cardiovascular exercise for heart health and weight management. But exercising and stretching your muscles are also important for overall health. A strong, flexible body looks and feels more youthful and energetic, boosting your confidence and self-esteem. The health benefits of strength and flexibility also go far beyond physical appearance.
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Improved Body Composition and Weight Management
Exercising your muscles increases your lean muscle mass and improves your body composition, which is your relative percentage of fat and lean mass. According to Mayo Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Edward Laskowski, MD, muscle mass naturally decreases as you age -- a process known as sarcopenia. Says Laskowski, "If you don't do anything to replace the lean muscle you lose, you'll increase the percentage of fat in your body." Because lean muscle contributes to movement, a more muscular body burns more calories per day, helping you manage your weight.
Your muscles work together to hold your skeleton erect by providing tension against your bones, but daily activities can overuse some muscles while others remain dormant. For example, sitting at your computer all day shortens your chest muscles while stretching the muscles in the upper back. Over time, if left uncorrected, you may become stoop-shouldered. Exercising weak muscles and stretching tight muscles restores balanced tension, keeping your spine in healthy alignment and taking pressure off the disks and nerves between the vertebrae.
Similarly, your joints rely on strong muscles to hold them in place and prevent deterioration. For example, standing with your knees "locked out," or hyperextended, due to weak hamstring muscles not only stresses your knee joints but throws your pelvis out of alignment, putting stress on the hip joints and low back. Strengthening and stretching all the muscles surrounding your joints promotes strong, healthy joints. The American Council on Sports Medicine recommends at least two resistance training sessions per week and performing at least one set of eight to 12 repetitions for each muscle group.
Improved Bone Mineral Density
Besides making you physically stronger, muscle-strengthening exercise has the added benefit of providing weightbearing activity for bones. Resistance training exercise places stress on your bones, causing them to become stronger by increasing bone mineral density, which helps to prevent osteoporosis. Having strong bones means you are less vulnerable to fractures.
Stability, Balance and Ease of Movement
In addition to decreased strength, an inactive and sedentary lifestyle can cause muscles and joints to stiffen up, making you less flexible. The American Council on Exercise notes that flexibility training is often neglected, yet flexible joints promote ease of movement and a reduced risk of injury. The American College of Sports Medicine concurs, noting that physically active older adults have greater overall functionality, with a reduced risk of falls and injury from falls. Strong, flexible joints and muscles make everyday activities easier to perform, giving you greater independence and an improved quality of life.