What’s your go-to exercise for heart health? There are many ways to get a cardiovascular workout from moderate-intensity activities, like running, cycling, brisk walking, and vigorous types of training like high-intensity interval workouts. Most people think that aerobic activity is the only form of exercise that improves heart health. Resistance training is only for building strength and muscle size, right? That’s the way most people look at exercise. You do resistance or strength training for physique enhancement and to build strength. But you perform cardio to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Surprisingly, resistance training has heart health benefits too. It benefits extend beyond sculpting your physique! In fact, a recent study of over 4,000 adults showed that strength training was more strongly linked with a reduction in cardiovascular disease than dynamic exercise, including aerobic activity. However, the greatest risk reduction was for people who did both.
Is it time to add strength training to the list of activities that protect against heart disease? Although this was a correlational study that doesn’t show causation, there are a variety of ways resistance training may lower the risk of developing heart problems. Here are five ways, backed by science, that a resistance workout can enhance the health of your heart and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Resistance Training Lowers Blood Pressure
Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Over time, high blood pressure damages blood vessels and forces the heart to work harder to deliver blood and oxygen to tissues. High blood pressure can quietly and insidiously injure every organ in your body and the extra work your heart performs increases the risk of developing heart failure. In addition, blood vessel damage can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
In one meta-analysis, a study that pools the results from a number of studies, researchers looked at data from 320 individuals and 11 studies pertaining to the impact of resistance training on blood pressure. The participants they analyzed lifted at 40% of their one-rep max and did 20 repetitions X 3 sets. After 4 weeks of training, the subjects experienced a drop in systolic and diastolic blood pressure of around 3 mmHg for both numbers.
This corresponds to other research showing resistance training modestly reduces blood pressure by 1 to 5 mmHg. Lifting lighter weights and higher reps may have more beneficial effects on blood pressure. Lifting near your one-rep max can actually cause a temporary rise in blood pressure, especially if you hold your breath during a lift.
Improvements in Blood Sugar
Resistance training, irrespective of how much weight you lift, increases insulin sensitivity. When insulin functions better, it lowers the blood sugar response to meals and helps with blood sugar control. Since we know high blood sugar and elevated insulin is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, resistance training is another tool in your heart health arsenal.
In a study published in Diabetes Care, older men who trained for 16 weeks at 50-80% of one-rep max experienced measurable improvements in insulin sensitivity. They also lost fat despite not losing weight. Several other studies also suggest that resistance training reduces insulin resistance even in people who don’t lose weight.
So, resistance training boosts insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control independent of weight loss. Plus, developing more muscle helps the body better handle glucose, since muscle takes up glucose and removes it from the bloodstream. This is important because insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are strong risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Weight Loss and Reductions in Visceral Fat
Obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Strength training can improve body composition by reducing body fat and increasing muscle tissue. Visceral fat is the most dangerous type of excess body fat due to its link with insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.
Overall, research shows aerobic activity is more effective for reducing visceral fat than resistance exercise. However, a 2007 study found that both resistance training and aerobic training were equally beneficial for shedding visceral fat. Why not do both? Don’t give up cardio, but resistance training also helps with body composition, weight management, and could make it easier to burn visceral fat too.
Impact on Blood Lipids
We know that aerobic exercise favorably impacts blood lipids. Vigorous aerobic exercise lowers LDL-cholesterol and raises HDL-cholesterol, the good form of cholesterol, in some people. While the benefits of resistance training on LDL and HDL are modest, some studies show performing a higher volume of training, doing more sets and reps, can modestly improve these measurements. In this case, a muscle endurance workout using lighter weights, more reps, and more sets would be the most beneficial. However, any type of resistance training, by improving body composition and insulin sensitivity, may, over time, favorably impact blood lipids.
According to Harvard Health, resistance training has mood-enhancing benefits and helps ward off depression. In fact, a study found that depressed subjects who weight trained twice weekly reported improvements in symptoms of depression. Another study published in Sports Medicine found that weight training reduces anxiety. So, working your body against resistance is a short-term mood lifter.
Why is this important? We also know, from small studies, that stress plays a role in the incidence of cardiovascular disease. When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release hormones, like cortisol and adrenalin, that constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure. Over time, the chronic effects of stress can damage blood vessels and heart health.
The Bottom Line
Resistance training is a heart-healthy activity for a number of reasons. Science is now starting to reveal its positive impact on the cardiovascular system. Combine that with the other health and fitness benefits working muscles against resistance offers and it’s easy to see why resistance training should be part of every fitness routine.
· The Cooper Institute. “Hypertension and weight training: secrets for success”
· Int J Cardiol. 2013 Oct 9;168(4):3634-42. doi: 10.1016/j.ijcard.2013.05.012. Epub 2013 May 25
· Mayo Clinic. Weight Lifting Bad for Your Blood Pressure?”
· J Obes Weight Loss Ther. 2015 Jul; 5(0 5): S5-003.
· BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2017;2:e000143. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000143.
· Harvard Health Publishing. “Strengthen your mood with weight training”
· OutsideOnline.com. “Lifting Weights Helps Ease Anxiety and Depression”
· Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heart Disease Risk Factors”
· Medical News Today. “Strength training tied to better heart health than aerobic”
· Diabetes Care 2005 Mar; 28(3): 662-667.
· Annals of internal medicine 147.6 (2007): 357-369.
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