You want to build muscle? Lift weights. You want to strengthen your heart? Put your running shoes on.
This has been the conventional belief of every gym rat who has ever grumbled his (or her) way through thirty minutes on the treadmill. But what if this consensus wisdom is wrong? What if resistance training is every bit as good -- or even better -- at improving heart health as running or biking?
Well, climb down from the stationary bike and hear the good news. Recent research indicates that weight training isn't just excellent for building bigger muscles. It also improves heart and lung function and may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Resistance training is also associated with a lower body mass index (BMI), which is another key factor for enhanced heart health.
Let's start with strength training's effect on blood pressure. In a study conducted at Appalachian State University and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, scientists investigated the vasodilatory and arterial distensibility responses in test subjects who performed short, intense bouts of either resistance training or aerobic training. After exercise, aortic and femoral pulse wave velocity was measured as an index of overall blood flow and forearm vasodilatory capacity was measured to determine blood pressure. After exercise, test subjects who performed resistance exercise experienced increases in limb blood flow as well as lowered blood pressure at 40 minutes post-exercise when compared with subjects who performed bouts of aerobic exercise. The researchers theorized that strength training increases the amount and efficiency of blood flow to muscle tissue, literally giving your cardiovascular system more places to put blood, which in turn lowers overall blood pressure, as compared to aerobic activity, which does not increase blood flow in the same way and does not deliver an equal benefit.
Strength training may also decrease belly fat, which has been strongly associated with cardiovascular disease. In a study published in the journal Obesity in 2015, researchers measured waist circumference change over 12 years in 10,500 men engaged in either resistance training or vigorous aerobic activity. The result? Test subjects who strength trained for 20 minutes per day gained less age-related visceral fat over a period of 12 years compared to those who spent the same amount of time engaged in cardiovascular activity. Here, scientists theorize that strength training may actually speed up metabolic rate, which in turn would result in decreases in fatty tissue around the midsection.
Strength training has also been associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, maintenance of stable blood sugar levels, enhanced bone and joint strength, better sleep, and improved mood. It can help improve endurance, flexibility, stamina, balance, and coordination. And yes, it will enhance your cardiovascular health. How much so, you ask? Well a large-scale study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise earlier this year offered up some pretty definitive numbers.
Study: Moderate Strength Training Reduces
Risk of Cardiovascular Disease by 40% to 70%
In the study, researchers investigated the associations of resistance exercise with cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality, and further examined the mediation effect of body mass index between resistance exercise and cardiovascular disease outcomes. Test subjects were 12,591 participants (mean age 47 years) who had participated in an Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study in which they had completed extensive lifestyle and exercise surveys and underwent at least two preventive health examinations between 1987 and 2006.
When researchers collated the data that was collected, they found that as little as one session of resistance exercise per week (less than one hour) cut the participants’ risks of heart disease and dying from a cardiovascular event by 40 to 70 percent, compared to subjects who did no resistance training. This held true even if the resistance trainers did not perform the recommended amount of aerobic exercise every week. Though more research is needed to validate this finding, this is pretty stark evidence that strength training and cardiovascular health are strongly interconnected.
So what is the takeaway from all the evidence cited above? Simply this: Strength is good. When your muscles are stronger, your functional capacity increases, your heart doesn't have to work as hard and key markers of heart health are impacted positively. Keep in mind that we're not saying you should ditch cardio entirely; getting your heart rate elevated for thirty minutes or so twice a week definitely has its benefits. But of the two forms of exercise, resistance training and aerobic exercise, only one supports both muscle increase AND cardiovascular health. Thus, strength training represents the best and most productive use of your exercise time.
Collier, Scott R; Diggle, Michelle D; Heffernan, Kevin S; Kelly, Erin E; Tobin, Melissa M; Fernhall, Bo. Changes in Arterial Distensibility and Flow-Mediated Dilation After Acute Resistance vs. Aerobic Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 10 - p 2846-2852.
Rania A. Mekary, Anders Grøntved, Jean‐Pierre Despres, Leandro Pereira De Moura, Morteza Asgarzadeh, Walter C. Willett, Eric B. Rimm, Edward Giovannucci, Frank B. Hu. Weight training, aerobic physical activities, and long‐term waist circumference change in men. Obesity, Volume 23, Issue 2, February 2015, pages 461-467.
Liu, Yanghui; Lee, Duck-chul; Li, Yehua; Zhu, Weicheng; Zhang, Riquan; Sui, Xuemei; Lavie, Carl J.; Blair, Steven N. Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 29, 2018, Volume Publish Ahead of Print, Issue p doi: 10.1249/MSS.
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