A Short, Power-Based Workout Can Reveal Your Risk of Early Death

It's a very specific kind of fitness. 

powerlifting workout risk of death

Workouts can give you valuable information about your fitness level, mental state, and even heart health. But some scientists believe that certain types of workouts may hold even more precious information. For example, your risk of dying prematurely.

Claudio Gil Araújo, Ph.D., a specialist in sport and exercise science, argues that how much muscle power a person generates during a workout is actually a strong predictor of all-cause mortality — the risk of dying for any reason. At a meeting of the European Cardiology Society, he revealed the results of his six-year experiment on 3,878 non-athletes between the ages of 41 and 85 who performed an upright rowing workout. He noted that people who could generate the highest levels of power were 13 times less likely to be dead after six years, compared to those who generated the lowest levels of power.

Critically, muscle power is different from muscle strength. Being able to squat a ton of weight indicates strength. But being able to perform that same squat faster indicates the ability to produce power, which is measured in watts. The ability to generate power is a specific kind of fitness, one that most people don’t tend to think about, Araújo tells Inverse:

weights workouts power
Being able to move heavy objects at high speeds is one indicator of power, which Araújo believes may be able to predict who is at risk for early death. 

“In traditional resistance training, speed of execution is not normally an issue or controlled,” Araújo says. “A high speed of execution with a relatively heavy load or resistance on the concentric phase is very important and, indeed, more relevant than all other variables.”

Araújo presented his study in Portugal on Friday. However, the abstract for his research won’t be publicly available until three months after the conference, a spokesperson tells Inverse.

Araújo’s power test comes on the heels of several other homespun fitness exams intended to analyze health. In February, scientists at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health debuted a push-up challenge that could predict heart disease risk. And in 2012, Araújo developed his own measure called the sitting-rising test, which he found was able to predict premature death in a sample of 50- to 80-year-olds.

The sitting-rising test went something like this: You start standing, then attempt to sit down on the ground, then you try to get up from that seated position using as little support as possible. For example, using a hand or knee to push yourself up would result in a one point deduction, and being off-balance or unsteady would result in a .5 point reduction. Overall, the test is scored out of 10. In his paper, published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology, Araújo noted that those with the lowest scores were over five times more likely to have died at the end of a six-year followup period than who scored higher.

Still, Araújo wasn’t sure why low scores on the sitting-rising test were correlated with higher rates of death. Power generation, he hypothesized, may be the crucial metric embedded within the sitting-rising test, because it’s not only a measure of musculoskeletal strength, but also contingent on flexibility, balance, and body composition. Those factors, he argues, are all crucial parts of overall fitness.

His upright rowing experiment supports his hunch that power is an important indicator of health. When he divided the results of his power test into quarters, he saw significant differences in performance that correlated with how many people died over the course of the experiment.

rowing power watts
Rowing machines track how much power is generated with each stroke and display a wattage measure on the screen. Araújo didn't use rowing machines, but he found that lower  power output is significantly correlated with death in older adults.

For example, the average man in his experiment was able to generate 2.5 watts per kilogram of body weight, and the average woman generated 1.4 watts of power per kilogram of body weight. 16.3 percent of the people in the bottom 25 percent died during the six-year followup — men in that category generated less than 1.9 watts per kilogram, and the women generated less than one watt per kilogram, both far below average. By comparison, only two percent of people who were able to generate at least the average amount of wattage died over that same time period.

Araújo added that this indicates that more power is better, but that you “only need to be above the median for your sex to have the best survival.” So you may not need to absolutely crush power training if your goal is to survive. However, for those that want to, he recommends doing workouts with weights that are difficult to lift, but not so heavy that you can’t move them quickly, and then trying to lift rapidly for six to eight reps, with 20 seconds of rest between each round.

Importantly, Araújo’s longevity tests don’t point to any unique biological advantages of these workouts that may keep death at bay. Instead, his results suggest that a power-based workout, like the sitting-rising test or the push-up challenge, are good ways to get a sense of how healthy you are in a short amount of time.

Remember to relax and recover after every tough workout.