Most people lift weights to increase the size of the muscles they see when they look in the mirror. You might also lift to improve your performance in certain sports or to reduce the loss of muscle mass we all experience with age. Muscle loss is real and being inactive accelerates it. If you want to do the things you enjoy later in life, you need some form of resistance training. So, keep pumping iron or resistance bands. It’s even good for your heart! Here’s what research shows about weight training and heart health.
Muscles come in different types. Skeletal muscles are the ones that help you perform the activities you do every day, such as lifting things, walking around, or running. However, none of this could happen without another muscle that works around the clock to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles and tissues. That organ is your heart, a muscle that beats over 115,000 times daily. It’s a pump that’s always active, even when you sleep. There’s no rest and recovery for this muscle, unless you count the time between heartbeats as a rest.
What Type of Exercise Promotes Heart Health?
We know that aerobic exercise is beneficial for heart health. No surprise here! When you perform sub-maximal exercise for sustained periods of time, like brisk walking or running, your heart becomes a more efficient pump. Because of this increased efficiency, your resting heart rate drops as your heart can pump more blood and oxygen with each beat. Plus, aerobic exercise can lower blood pressure and blood sugar, reduce the risk of blood clots, improve blood lipids, reign in inflammation, and relieve stress, all of which are important for a healthy heart and for lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Yes, we need aerobic exercise for heart health, but what role does strength training play in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease? A new study shows that working your muscles against resistance is heart-healthy too. For the study, researchers tracked the number of new cases of cardiovascular disease and stroke among 2020 men and women for ten years. Around half of the subjects were over the age of 45. At the beginning of the study, the participants were healthy and had no evidence of heart disease.
After following the participants for ten years and documenting new cases of heart attack, heart disease, and stroke, the researchers analyzed the results. When they compared subjects in the top third of muscle mass (how much muscle on their frame) with the lowest third, those in the highest third were 81% less likely to have experienced a heart attack or stroke over the decade-long study.
You might assume that people with more muscle mass are more likely to be physically active and eat a healthy diet and that might explain the difference in heart attack and stroke rate. But even when the researchers controlled for lifestyle factors, participants with greater muscle mass experienced fewer heart attacks and strokes over the decade the study ran. Also, the research showed benefits mainly for men. It’s possible that hormonal factors impacted the results for women. Plus, men have higher levels of muscle. However, other studies suggest that strength training is helpful for heart health in both men and women.
It’s hard to draw conclusions from one study, especially observational research like this, but this isn’t the first study to show a link between strength training and a lower risk of heart disease and heart attack. A 2018 study of 4,000 adults looked at the effects of dynamic exercise, such as aerobic training, versus static exercise, like strength training on cardiovascular risk. It was static exercise (strength training) that showed the strongest link with cardiovascular health. However, researchers point out that doing both is optimal. In fact, either form of exercise was associated with a risk reduction of 30 to 70%, although strength training had an edge over aerobic exercise. It’s surprising when you consider that aerobic exercise is the “heart-healthy” form of workout in the minds of most people.
Why Weight Training is Good for Your Heart
One benefit of working your muscles against resistance is it improves how cells handle glucose. Why is this important? A major risk factor for cardiovascular disease is insulin resistance. Studies show that weight training reduces insulin resistance by improving how cells handle glucose. In response to weight training and when you have more muscle on your body, cells clear glucose from the blood easier. In fact, a study found that less than an hour per week of resistance training reduced the risk of insulin resistance by 70%.
Strength training and aerobic training also have positive effects on blood vessel function, although the way they impact blood vessels differs. One benefit of aerobic exercise is that it reduces blood vessel stiffness. That’s why people who do aerobic exercise regularly often have a modest drop in blood pressure.
Although studies show that strength training doesn’t reduce arterial stiffness, and slightly increases it, it boosts blood flow to peripheral tissues, including your muscles. That extra blood flow helps you complete that challenging set of squats. This increased flow to peripheral tissues, like your muscles, is called flow-mediated dilation. It and arterial stiffness (which aerobic exercise improves) are both important for a healthy cardiovascular system. Therefore, aerobic exercise and resistance training are both beneficial for heart health, although in different ways.
The Bottom Line
A little brawn may be good for your heart! Not to mention all the other anti-aging benefits of strength training. There’s nothing that preserves muscle mass more than working your muscles against resistance. Use it or lose it! Plus, high-intensity strength training helps preserve bone health too. Any way you look at it, you need strength training for the health of your muscles, bones, and tendons. However, now you know that strength training is healthy for your heart too.
- Medical News Today. “Strength training tied to better heart health than aerobic”
- com. “Middle-Aged Muscle Mass Tied to Future CVD Risk in Men”
- Medical News Today. “Weight Training Has Unique Heart Benefits, Study Suggests”
- J Cardiopulm Rehabil Prev. 2012 Nov; 32(6): 351–358. doi: 10.1097/HCR.0b013e3182642688.
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