When people refer to exercise as being good for the heart, they’re often speaking of aerobic exercise, exercise that boosts heart rate for sustained periods of time. It’s clear that aerobic exercise benefits heart health by:
- Making the heart a more efficient pump
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving how blood vessels function
- Lowering the risk of obesity
- Reducing stress
Aerobic exercise may also reduce the risk of several chronic diseases associated with aging, including the risk of type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
What about resistance exercise, exercise where you work your muscles against resistance? Strength training, whether you work with your own bodyweight, dumbbells, barbells, or resistance bands, is not just for building muscle and strength. It also improves bone and metabolic health. So, there are multiple reasons to do it. You might also wonder whether strength training alone can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you enjoy strength training more than you do an aerobic workout, there’s reason to feel encouraged. Strength training is a heart-healthy activity too!
Strength Training and Cardiovascular Disease
In a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found strength training alone can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by 40 to 70%. To reach these conclusions, they looked at data on almost 13,000 adults of all ages, up to age 89. The participants answered questionnaires about their exercise habits and had two clinical exams over the course of the 19-year study.
Their findings? Individuals who did this had a reduced risk of developing a stroke or heart attack relative to individuals who didn’t train their muscles against resistance. The link was also independent of whether they did aerobic exercise and how much they did. In the study, subjects didn’t have to strength train like a bodybuilder. Even training only once per week was enough to reduce the risk relative to not strength training at all. In fact, strength training 4 times per week didn’t offer greater cardiovascular protection than training once per week.
How Does Strength Training Lower the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease?
The mechanisms by which aerobic exercise reduces the risk of heart disease are more clear-cut than those related to strength training. The most obvious reason is that strength training improves body composition and helps with weight control. Obesity is a potent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but there’s more to it than that.
Another benefit of strength training is it reduces visceral fat, a deep type of belly fat. Visceral fat is the most harmful type of fat from a health standpoint because it deposits deep in the pelvic cavity and around organs such as the liver. If you have a large waist size, you probably have too much visceral fat and should lose it for health reasons. Visceral fat is sinister because it produces cytokines that fuel inflammation.
In fact, scientists point out that visceral fat is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, unlike subcutaneous fat that deposits in areas like your hips and thighs. Research shows weight training and working muscles against resistance reduces visceral fat and improves body composition in a way that’s heart-friendly.
Strength training also improves insulin sensitivity, so that cells take up glucose more efficiently. In one study, resistance training boosted insulin sensitivity by 16%. Good insulin sensitivity means you’re at a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. To support this, one study followed 229 people for 8 years found those with good muscle strength were 32% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes by the completion of the study. Strength training is beneficial for metabolic health since it boosts insulin sensitivity.
Less Heart Fat
Another interesting study found that subjects who strength trained had less fat accumulation around their heart. Subjects who strength trained or did aerobic exercise had less fat directly around the heart but only those who weight trained had reduced fat in their pericardial sac, a sac that surrounds the heart. This is encouraging since less pericardial fat is favorable for heart health.
The Bottom Line
These results are encouraging, but your best bet for heart health is to do aerobic exercise and strength training. Aerobic exercise doesn’t have to comprise long sessions of moderate-intensity cardio. You could shorten your sessions by doing high-intensity interval training. The benefit of high-intensity interval training is it improves aerobic and anaerobic capabilities. According to some cardiologists, high-intensity exercise is more beneficial for heart health than moderate-intensity workouts.
The results of this study are correlational; it doesn’t prove that strength training lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. We need randomized controlled research trials for that. Still, everyone needs strength training for health and to reduce muscle loss because of aging. Many older people walk as their only form of exercise, and that’s not sufficient to prevent muscle loss. However, there are added benefits from brisk walking and other forms of exercise that boosts the heart rate. For example, evidence strongly supports aerobic exercise for brain health since it builds new nerve connections.
If you have only limited time to exercise, strength training is your best bet since it too may offer heart health benefits. You can even combine weight training with cardio by doing circuit training where you move quickly from strength exercise to exercise to keep your heart rate up. Another option is to include a 10-minute high-intensity interval session at the end of your strength workouts for added cardiovascular benefits.
- com. “Strength Training Found to Lower Heart Disease and Diabetes Risk, Whether or Not You Do Cardio”
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Nov; 40(11): 1863–1872. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181801d40.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Give Your Heart Health a Lift”
- org. “Strength and Resistance Training Exercise”
- com. “Effects of Resistance Training On Insulin Sensitivity”
- Ismail AD, Aba Alkhayl FF, Wilson J, Johnston L, Gill JMR, Gray SR. The effect of short duration resistance training on insulin sensitivity and muscle adaptations in overweight men. Exp Physiol. 2019 Jan 29.
- Shaibi GQ, Cruz ML, Ball GD, Weigensberg MJ, Salem GJ, Crespo NC, Goran MI. Effects of resistance training on insulin sensitivity in overweight Latino adolescent males. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Jul;38(7):1208-15.
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