Regular participation in muscle strengthening activity such as weight training has many health benefits. However, this mode of exercise has been largely overlooked in Australian health promotion. Research shows a large majority of Australians do not engage in any muscle strengthening activity.

Given the potential health benefits of muscle strengthening exercise, surprisingly little was known about participation in such activities among Australians. To gain a better understanding of the levels and patterns of muscle strengthening activity among the Australian population, national surveys (ABS: National Nutrition & Physical Activity Survey and the Australian Sports Commission: Exercise, Recreation & Sport Survey) found that only 9%-19% of Australian adults meet the muscle strengthening activity guidelines; over 80% of adults report no muscle strengthening activity; participation rates decline with age, being two to four times lower among older adults when compared to young adults.

Muscle strengthening activity usually includes exercise using weight machines, exercise bands, hand held weights, or own body weight. When performed regularly, muscle strengthening activity leads to the improvement and maintenance of strength, size, power and endurance of skeletal muscles.

Historically, most public health physical activity recommendations have predominantly promoted moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity (such as brisk walking or jogging). However, the current Australian guidelines issued in 2014 are our first national public health guidelines to additionally recommend muscle strengthening activity. They recommend an adult “do muscle strengthening activities on at least two days each week”.

This addition of muscle strengthening activity into the physical activity recommendations is due to emerging scientific evidence linking this type of activity to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, physical disability, heart disease, poor musculo-skeletal and mental health and premature death.

Among the most important roles muscle strengthening activity has is enabling older adults to keep their physical functioning adequate, preventing or delaying frailty and falls, and thus maintaining independent living for longer.

Importantly, when compared to aerobic physical activity such as walking and cycling, weight training has greater benefits for bone/joint health and the ability to perform activities of daily living. These include general mobility, getting into and out of a chair, bathing, dressing and slowing the loss of skeletal muscle mass/strength. These outcomes are very important for all age groups, but especially for older adults seeking ways to maintain their independence.