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SENDAI, Japan (StudyFinds.org) – Bigger muscles may be the key to a longer life. According to a study out of Japan, lifting weights at the gym or even doing some heavy lifting around the house for just 30 minutes a week cuts the risk of dying early by up to a fifth.

Prior studies show that building muscle is linked to a lower risk of death, but scientists had not probed what the optimal “dose” might be. Researchers from the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine report that muscle strength training for 30 to 60 minutes each week cuts the risk of death from heart diseasediabetes and cancer by 10 to 20 percent. And when combined with aerobic exercise the risk can drop by 40 percent.

Not a fan of the gym? Scientists say that similar levels of muscle-building, such as heavy gardening activities, counts as a strength training session just as much as lifting weights or doing push-ups does.

Interestingly, however, the study finds that working out for longer than that does nothing to cut the risk further.

Muscle strengthening forms a protective shield for our bodies

For the study, study authors scoured research databases for observational studies where adults without major health issues had been monitored for anywhere between two and 25 years. They analyzed 16 studies, the earliest of which was published ten years ago. Most of the studies were carried out in the U.S. with the rest taking place in the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.

Participants were aged 18 to 97 and the number of people taking part in each study ranged from about 4,000 to almost 500,000. Of the studies, 12 included both men and women, two included men only, while three included women only. They all considered the effect of aerobic forms of exercise such as running and jumping as well as strength training.

Muscle strengthening activities were linked to a lower risk of death from any cause, and particularly from heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, and lung cancer.

However no link was found between muscle training and some forms of cancer including bowel, kidney, bladder and pancreatic cancer.

The best results were achieved after 30 to 60 minutes of muscle strength training. People who do strength training and aerobic exercise were at an even lower risk from all causes of death, heart disease and cancer. Results show that people who did both were at a 40 percent lower risk from all causes of death, a 46 percent lower risk from heart disease and a 28 percent lower risk from cancer.

“The combination of muscle strengthening and aerobic activities may provide a greater benefit for reducing all-cause, cardiovascular disease and total cancer mortality,” the authors write. “Given that the available data are limited, further studies—such as studies focusing on a more diverse population—are needed to increase the certainty of the evidence.”

The findings are published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.