Why You Should Focus More on “Strengthspan” Than Lifespan

The new metric comes with actionable steps for leading a longer, healthier life

Two kids hanging from the arms of legendary boxer Rocky Marciano.
The earlier you start performing muscle-strengthening activities, the longer you'll be able to do stuff like this.
Bettmann/Contributor, Ashley Whitlatch/Unsplash

A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has popularized a fascinating new health term: “strengthspan.”

In recent years, researchers have urged the masses to stop obsessing solely over lifespan and shift their focus to healthspan — that’s to say, the number of years one is free from age-related disease or disability. After all, what’s the point of living to 100 if your last 10 years are unbearable?

Healthspan is a way of broadly contextualizing (as well as literally measuring) one’s physiological reserve. The concept of your strengthspan takes this idea and runs with it, narrowing the focus to how long one can deploy muscular strength. As it turns out, lengthening your strengthspan is a big deal. In the study, lead author Avery Faigenbaum writes: “Regular participation in muscle strength activities (MSA) is associated with a variety of health outcomes including decreases in all-cause mortality rates and increases in physical functioning, cardiometabolic health and psychosocial well-being.”

He argues for a proactive integration of strength training for all age demographics. “By expanding the strengthspan with MSA at every stage of life, individuals may not only live longer but may be more likely to move independently, function safely and perform a range of physical tasks effectively throughout the lifespan.”

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Isn’t This Obvious?

Maybe it sounds somewhat self-explanatory that strength training is an effective longevity activity, and one that people should turn to throughout their lives. But a 2018 survey illustrated that only 30% of Americans 18 and over perform MSA the recommended two to three times a week. You might chalk that up to lackluster exercise habits across the board, but in that same poll, 50% of respondents said they engaged in regular cardio.

Groups with low strength-training participation — women, middle-aged men, children, senior citizens — stand to benefit greatly from paying extra attention to strengthspan. Consider: another recent study, this one in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that women who do MSA reduce their cardiovascular mortality by 30% while also boosting their bone health, joints and even mood.

Strength Training = Intimidating

Perhaps that study’s most memorable takeaway: only 20% of the roughly 226,000 women studied are getting these benefits. The other 80% said they don’t participate in MSA.

Why not? Well, all forms of exercise can be intimidating for newcomers, and certain activities are highly genderized. It’s clear, though, that adults of all stripes should engage in regular strength training. Functional strength-training exercises tend to have crystal-clear companions in everyday life: hoisting a sandbag over your head is putting your luggage in the overhead compartment, and the more farmer’s carries you perform at 40, the easier it will be to carry your own groceries at 80.

Fortunately, our concept of what constitutes strength training has expanded in recent years, too. Anxious trainees no longer have to choose between Muscle Beach or nothing at all; class aggregators, connected fitness machines and a proliferation of workout clubs (CrossFit, HYROX, etc.) have nudged exercisers towards bodyweight fare, HIIT, reformer Pilates, rowing and other options.

Start ‘Em Young

Faigenbaum also stresses the importance of fostering a “reserve of muscular strength earlier in life,” which he calls a “requisite baseline.”

Plotted on a graph, strengthspan looks like this. Notice how your “strength metric” — which the study’s authors tracked through tests of functional strength, grip strength and one-rep maxes — will plummet as one’s life goes on. There’s simply no getting around it. Declining muscle mass is an unavoidable hallmark of aging. As Harvard Health writes, “After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% per decade. Most men will lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetimes.”

In other words, Father Time wins the arm wrestle every single time. But you can hold him off for longer if you diligently sharpen your strengthspan, plugging in just two to three MSA sessions a week, every week, year after year. If you don’t do that already (or feel like you missed the boat entirely), that frequency may sound tedious and undesirable, maybe even scary. But that stuff about strength training boosting one’s mood is real.

As one study notes: “In the only review of resistance exercise [Ed. note: strength training] and mental health, increases in cognition, increases in self-esteem, and decreases in depression were noted across several randomized clinical trials.”

For so long, we’ve associated strength training with surface-level endgames or assumed it to be the exclusive domain of niche demographics (T-fueled 20-somethings). No more. Strength training is too accessible, and strengthspan too important, for that to be the case anymore.

If you want to get started this week, check out a few of our dedicated strength-training guides:

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