Revealed: the effect of strength training on metabolic syndrome


Metabolic syndrome is defined by the International Diabetes Federation as "a cluster of the most dangerous heart attack risk factors: diabetes and pre-diabetes, abdominal obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure".

This clustering is believed to be related to insulin resistance, where the body's cells have over time become less sensitive to insulin, but other factors such as overall obesity may also play a part.

If you have three or more of the following features, then you may be diagnosed as having metabolic syndrome:

  • a high waist girth (Caucasian men/women 94/80 cm or over and Asian men/women 90/80 cm or over) and/or a body mass index (BMI)of 30 or more
  • raised blood pressure (130/85 or more) or being on medication for high blood pressure
  • raised blood glucose (fasting level 5.6 mmol/L or more)
  • a high blood triglyceride level (over 1.7 mmol/L)
  • a low HDL cholesterol level (men less than 1.03 mmol/L and women less than 1.29 mmol/L).

Strength training and the metabolic syndrome

As well as addressing these areas directly, there is an increasing body of evidence supporting the benefits of regular strength training in avoiding and managing metabolic syndrome.

And the good news is you don't need to be a bodybuilder to see that risk reduce. If your plan is well-balanced, it shouldn't need any more than a 10- to 20-minute session twice a week, and can include light weight training, body weight exercises or a mixture of both.

When we reach the age of 40, our muscle mass will start to decrease every decade or so by between 8 and 10 percent, and we may also gain body fat. Inside our body, fat cells can bind insulin, which means there is less for the body to use or it starts to be used ineffectively.

This can in turn result in raised blood glucose levels together with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A lower muscle mass has a number of risks too. These include decreased insulin sensitivity, increased fatty tissue and a lower bone density.

There is, however, good evidence showing that regular strength training can help improve insulin sensitivity, which in turn will help with glucose tolerance. However, far too few of us meet the minimum recommendations for strength training, which is to exercise all our main muscle groups (back, chest, legs, arms and core) twice a week.

So how do I start strength training for the first time?

If you are inexperienced with strength training, or even if you haven't done any for a while, it is perhaps advisable to speak to a professional before you start. Suitably qualified fitness instructors can help you get the most out of your workout by designing a plan specifically for your needs and your body type, which you can stick to and slowly progress over time.

As with any form of exercise, you have more chance of sticking with a new routine if you enjoy it, so be sure to ask questions of your fitness instructor and provide your own input. That will give you the best chance of coming up with something that can have a really positive impact on your life.