Oxidative Stress – Drop the Anti-Wrinkle Cream, Lift Weights Instead!

Here at Fitness Savvy, we read a lot of research papers. We’ve recently read about a new study that links resistance training and exercise in older females with combatting oxidative stress. The results sound great; use weight bearing exercises to keep yourself free from the effects of oxidative stress. And bag amazing anti-ageing effects at the same time.

But what exactly is oxidative stress and what’s all this about exercise potentially keeping us youthful? As you know, we like to sort through the science. So before we get to the results of the study, let’s take a look at exactly what oxidative stress is…

Oxidative Stress Part One

Oxidative stress, according to the scientists, is “an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and antioxidant defences” 1.

Many of us are familiar with the term ‘free radicals’ and we’ve probably heard this mentioned in the same sentence as antioxidants. “Antioxidants neutralise free radicals”. But what exactly does this mean? What is oxidative stress and what does it have to do with exercise and ageing?

First, some chemistry…

Every single thing in our body; our muscles, fat, tissues and even our DNA, is made up of thousands of tiny molecules. These molecules are made up of even tinier particles called atoms. A molecule of carbohydrate for example, is made up of atoms of the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

At the centre of each atom, is a cluster of tiny positively charged protons and zero charged, neutral neutrons. These then have a circle of negatively charged electrons floating around the outside. (Most of us would’ve seen these kinds of diagrams at school.) The positive and negative charges balance each other out to make each atom ultimately neutral, and crucially, stable.

Free radicals contribute to oxidative stress | Fitness Savvy

Free radicals contribute to oxidative stress

Oxidative Stress Part Two

Our body metabolises molecules all the time, during digestion and other essential bodily processes. This means that it’s either breaking molecules down into smaller ones, or putting them together to make larger ones. During these essential processes, atoms of oxygen lose electrons from their outer ring, creating ‘free radicals’. So ultimately, it’s careless molecules of oxygen that lose electrons that become free radicals.

Exposure to pollution, smoking, eating food fried in saturated fats and UV light can all also introduce free radicals into the body.

Free Radicals

Free radicals are extremely unstable, and move around the body looking for electrons to steal from neutral, less careless, atoms of oxygen to stabilise themselves. This process eventually causes damage to cells, proteins and DNA molecules. This is oxidative stress, and surprisingly, is happening within our bodies all the time. One free radical scavenges an electron from a stable oxygen atom, causing that to be become a free radical and so on, causing a chain reaction 2.

Oxidative Stress | Fitness Savvy

Oxidative Stress

Free radicals are an unavoidable by-product of vital bodily functions and over time can build up to harmful levels. They’re thought to contribute to ageing, heart disease, certain cancers and problems with insulin resistance.

Foods such as fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants which help to neutralise these free radicals. Antioxidants donate electrons to free radicals, making them stable again.

So What’s All This Got To Do With Exercise and Ageing?

Exercise also has a protective effect against the consequences of oxidative stress by increasing the levels of natural antioxidant levels in the blood. Particularly, resistance type exercises have previously been linked with reducing the effects of oxidative stress 3.

Oxidative stress specifically in women is linked to a reduction in the hormone oestrogen. This can lead to age-related heart problems. Women are also more susceptible to the loss of skeletal muscle (known as sarcopenia) and muscle strength (known as dynapenia), both consequences of oxidative stress. It also has major effects on the ageing of skin, too 4.

And lifting weights, it seems, can help combat those pesky free radicals leading to less oxidative stress and its associated blood vessel and musculature problems. And we’re not necessarily talking about heavy weights either.

Resistance Training in Older Females

Studies have shown that resistance training has benefits to the health of older individuals in terms of reducing oxidative stress. The study we’re concentrating on today (the findings of which have only just been released), suggests that lifting reasonable weight can ‘promote an improvement in markers of oxidative stress in older women’. And what’s more, it doesn’t seem to matter which way the resistance training is completed 5.

Resistance training to reduce oxidative stress. The study was carried out by researchers based in health science institutions in Brazil, America and Portugal in 2017. They investigated the effect of two different resistance training systems on oxidative stress markers in 59 women aged between 60 and 72. The woman chosen were all healthy non-smokers, with no heart or mobility problems who hadn’t performed exercises more than once a week for the six months leading up to the study.

Traditional Resistance Training vs Pyramid

The women were split into three groups. The first to carry out traditional resistance training, the second to carry out pyramid resistance training and the third as a neutral control group who did no exercise. All participants in the two non-control groups did their whole-body exercises three times a week for eight weeks, under supervision.

The exercises were all the same and in the same order – chest press, horizontal leg press, seated row, knee extensions, free weight bicep curls, triceps pushdown and seated calf raises.

The only difference was the weight and reps. The traditional resistance training group did three sets of 8-12 reps of each exercise using a consistent weight. Whereas the pyramid resistance group completed three sets of each, using increasing weight but decreasing the reps. Pyramid training is usually used to complete a more beneficial workout.

Blood Oxidative Stress Markers

Blood samples were taken from each of the participants (in a fasted state) in the two weeks before the supervised resistance training and the two weeks after. Then some very clever, and very complex science was performed on each to determine the levels of ‘advanced oxidation protein products’.

The results surprised the researchers. They thought that the two different methods of resistance training would produce different results in levels of oxidative stress markers.

In fact, there was no discernible difference. But the important message from this study is that resistance training definitely has a significantly positive effect on oxidative stress. The results from the two training groups showed a significant reduction in oxidative stress markers, and an improvement in antioxidant capacity, over that of the control group.

Resistance training to reduce oxidative stress

Our Final Thoughts…

A few reps of weight bearing exercise a few times a week really can help reduce the effects of ageing. Resistance training can be a preventative measure for the effects of oxidative stress in older women including skin elasticity, ageing, heart conditions and the retention of skeletal muscle.

So you really could drop that anti-wrinkle cream and lift weights instead!


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10693912
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4496716/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21694556
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4496685/
  5. http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/pdf/10.1123/ijsnem.2016-0322
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