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Why Europe needs to lift its game: study finds three-quarters of adults don’t do strength training

More than 75 per cent of European adults don’t do any muscle-strengthening exercise, according to the first multi-country study of its kind.

The World Health Organization recommends exercises like lifting weights, push-ups, sit-ups and squats should be carried out at least two days a week to maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. 

But data from more than 280,000 adults from 28 European countries showed that only 17.3 per cent follow the guidelines – 19.8 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women. 

The study, led by the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, is the most comprehensive look yet at how much muscle-strengthening exercise adults across Europe are getting.

The researchers said the findings, published today (November 25 CET) in The Public Library of Science ONE journal, required immediate action from public health officials.

“While the health benefits of muscle-strengthening exercise are clear, the reality is a large majority of European adults either don’t do it or don’t do enough of it,” said lead investigator Dr Jason Bennie, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Southern Queensland.

“Particularly concerning was our data showed that in some southern European countries, more than 95 per cent of adults reported doing no muscle‐strengthening exercise.” 

The research team used data from the second wave of the European Health Interview Survey, which was conducted in 2013 and 2014. 

Participants were asked how many days in a week they engage in physical activities specifically designed to strengthen muscles, such as doing resistance training or strength exercise.

South-eastern European countries Romania, Malta and Cyprus were among the lowest-ranked countries with less than eight per cent of adults meeting the recommended two days a week of muscle-strengthening exercise, while Nordic countries Iceland, Sweden and Denmark recorded the best results.

The team suggested wealth inequality across European countries was likely the main cause of the geographical pattern of participation in muscle-strengthening exercise.

Older age, lower education, being female and being overweight or obese were other factors associated with lower participation levels.

“Chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and mental disorders contribute to 86 per cent of deaths in Europe, yet the message around physical activity and its importance to health and wellbeing has generally focused on just aerobic exercise,” Dr Bennie said.  

“Given the established health benefits of muscle-stretching exercise, coupled with its low participation levels, there is an urgent need for governments and health authorities across Europe to start supporting the uptake of this type of exercise at the population level.”

Dr Bennie said there were several strategies that could help boost muscle-strengthening exercise levels, including access to affordable health facilities, equipment and fitness trainers, physical activity campaigns endorsing muscle-strengthening exercise as essential for optimal health and promotion in schools.  

“While muscle-strengthening exercise is typically performed at gyms or fitness centres, one thing the COVID-19 lockdown has shown us is how easily it can be done at home,” he said.

“Even a little bit of muscle-strengthening exercise can have immediate health benefits, especially if you are currently doing none.”

The study, ‘The epidemiology of muscle‐strengthening exercise in Europe: a 28-country comparison including 280,605 adults’ is available here.

Prevalence of sufficient muscle‐strengthening exercise 
Best performing countries
Iceland 51.6%
Sweden 38.4%
Denmark 34.3%

Worst performing countries
Romania 0.7%
Poland 5.5%
Malta 6.7%

Man instructing woman lifting weights.
Dr Jason Bennie.