Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.See all posts »
Muscle Strength and Your Heart Health
There is no question that aerobic exercise benefits the heart and the brain, but less is known about the effects of weight training and muscle strength on our heart health. A number of small studies have found important health benefits, even in elderly, frail people. We also know that building up muscle mass helps increase metabolism, although aerobic exercise burns more calories than weight lifting.
Doctors have sometimes been reluctant to recommend weight training for people with hypertension, for fear of aggravating high blood pressure and potentially even increasing the risk for stroke or heart attacks. It is true that if the blood pressure is not controlled, this can be a serious problem, since the strain of weight lifting can temporarily raise the blood pressure. However, this does not mean that someone with nicely controlled blood pressure should stay out of the gym. I usually caution my patients to be sure that they are able to breathe through their weight sets, since holding the breath and straining can put excessive pressure on the heart, and may also increase the chances of developing a hernia.
Dr. Enrique Artero and colleagues at the University of South Carolina decided to take the question one step further, and determine whether muscle strength has an impact on mortality in men over the age of 40 with hypertension. They studied over 1500 men for an average of 18 years, measuring strength based on leg press and bench press, and reported their findings in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Aerobic fitness was also evaluated. At the end of the study, the men in the top third for muscle strength had a 34 percent lower likelihood of dying from any cause. If they were also in the top third for aerobic fitness, their risk dropped by more than 50 percent.
The verdict? Both aerobic and strength training are important for our health and well-being. There are a few heart conditions that make weight lifting unacceptably risky, so it’s important to check in with your doctor before embarking on a new fitness program. Exercise has tremendous health benefits, and a weekly plan of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days per week plus two 20 minute sessions with weights can make an enormous difference. To feel even better, add in a little yoga or Pilates, and you’ve got a program that can’t be beat.
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