Is aerobic exercise the only way to train to enhance the health of your heart? Sure, aerobic exercise is heart healthy, but we also need to train our muscles against resistance. Strength training is the number one way to prevent the loss of strength and muscle mass that happens as we age. Aerobic exercise is not as effective at preserving muscle tissue as training with weights, resistance bands, or by doing body weight exercises.
What role does resistance exercise play in protecting against heart disease and heart attacks? Surprisingly, new research presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting shows that resistance training may be MORE important for heart health than aerobic exercise. How did they reach this surprising conclusion?
As part of a study, researchers looked at key markers of heart health among participants in the National Health and Nutrition Survey, a study that ran from 2005 to 2006. In all, they analyzed data from 4,086 adult men and women of all ages. Some of the markers they looked at included body weight, blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Then, they compared the values to how much time the subjects spent doing static exercise (resistance training) and dynamic activity (aerobic exercise)
The results? Taking part in either aerobic or resistance training was linked with a 30 to 70% reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, based on cardiovascular markers. However, the link was stronger for static exercise, like resistance training, than it was for dynamic exercise. Although this study only shows an association, not causation, it suggests that resistance training is at least as powerful for reducing heart disease risk as aerobic exercise.
How Might Resistance Training Improve Cardiovascular Health?
One way working your muscles against resistance enhances cardiovascular health is by improving the way blood vessels function. Research shows that aerobic exercise decreases arterial stiffness, the ease with which blood vessels open to allow blood and oxygen to flow through. Stiff arteries are linked with high blood pressure and with aging. Resistance training doesn’t appear to reduce stiffness, but it has another distinct benefit on blood vessels as well. A study showed that it enhances blood flow to the extremities. In addition, resistance training helps to lower blood pressure. In fact, a study found that resistance training leads to a more sustained drop in blood pressure than aerobic training does. So, aerobic and resistance training benefits blood vessel function in different ways.
Strength Training Can Benefit Your Metabolic Health
The more muscle you build and can hang on to as you age, the more muscle there is to take up glucose. That’s important for your metabolic health and risk of heart disease. Studies show that resistance training improves insulin sensitivity. Better insulin sensitivity lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, a leading risk factor for dying early of cardiovascular disease.
Another way strength training helps lower cardiovascular risk is by keeping deep tummy fat in check. As we age, visceral fat, the kind that deposits deep in the abdominal cavity and around internal organs, rises. Visceral fat is a particularly unhealthy type of fat as it produces inflammatory chemicals. We now know that inflammation plays a role in cardiovascular disease and heart attacks as it damages blood vessels. In one study, published in the journal Obesity involving 10,500 men, strength training reduced the age-related gain in visceral fat over a 12-year period.
Another study, this time in adolescents, found that aerobic exercise and resistance training in combination was more effective for reducing visceral fat and improving markers of metabolic health than aerobic training alone. Strength training combined with aerobic training may provide an added synergy that further lowers the risk of heart disease.
It’s heartening to see that strength training is good for your heart too, but endurance exercise has unique health benefits of its own. Aerobic training enhances health at the cellular level. It does this by boosting the number of mitochondria inside muscle cells, giving them greater ability to make ATP and fuel sub-maximal exercise. In response to these cellular upgrades, you have more stamina and endurance. Plus, aerobic exercise even enhances the efficiency with which muscle cells produce ATP. Aerobic exercise also makes the heart a more efficient pump. In response to aerobic exercise, resting heart rate slows as the heart doesn’t need to beat as many times per minute to deliver enough blood and oxygen to tissues. So, don’t neglect aerobic training either!
If you’re short on time, you can combine the two forms of exercise by doing a circuit workout. Circuit training is where you do resistance exercises in sequence without resting much between each exercise. That lack of rest increases the heart rate more than traditional strength training. You can even do cardio, such as jumping jacks, butt kicks, or high knees, between circuit exercises to keep your heart rate up more.
The Take-Home Message
Keep your workouts balanced. Too many people, especially older adults, focus only on aerobic exercise, like brisk walking. But we know that strength training is just as important as aerobic exercise, if not more so. Preserving muscle mass is what helps us stay functional. Therefore, strength training enhances health span, the number of years where we’re fully functional and able to do the things we enjoy. That’s important, right?
Ideally, your workouts should focus on all four aspects of fitness – aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance. They all matter for overall health and functionality. Without aerobic exercise, you lose stamina. Without strength training, you become less functional and have a higher risk of falling. Metabolic health also declines as sarcopenia sets in. Without flexibility, your range-of-motion is more limited. When balance skills suffer, you’re at higher risk of falling. How balanced is your workout? It all matters!
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Michigan State University. “The cardiovascular health benefits of resistance training”
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