Can pumping iron pump up your heart health? Yes, according to 2019 research published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
Researchers followed 12,591 people for more than five years and found those who did strength-training exercises at least once per week reduced their risk of a major cardiovascular event or death up to 70% — and weightlifting workouts didn’t have to be intense to be beneficial.
In fact, researcher Dr. Carl “Chip” Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and preventive cardiology at the Ochsner Clinical School in New Orleans, notes that, “There appeared to be loss of benefit among those who did very high amounts of resistance exercise, [lifting weights] four or more times weekly.”
THE STRENGTH-TRAINING ADVANTAGE
There’s no question cardiovascular exercise is beneficial for heart health, but strength training appears to have an advantage.
Research presented at the 2018 American College of Cardiology Latin America Conference found all types of exercise were linked to 30–70% lower rates of heart disease risk factors but strength training was slightly more beneficial for reducing heart disease risk than activities like walking and cycling.
Based on the findings, study co-author Maia P. Smith, PhD, a statistical epidemiologist and assistant professor at St. George’s University in Grenada, suggested, “Clinicians should counsel patients to exercise regardless.”
The research wasn’t set up to explore the reasons different forms of exercise had differing impacts on the heart, but Lavie points to studies showing muscle mass has improved insulin resistance, reduced metabolic syndrome (a collection of symptoms that includes elevated triglycerides, high blood pressure, low HDL “good” cholesterol and high blood sugar) and lowered diabetes risk — all risk factors for heart disease.
“Although there is definitely overlap, aerobics and resistance exercise work differently and synergistically on various cardiac risk factors and cardiovascular function,” Lavie says.
WEIGHING IN ON INTENSITY
If your goal is to reduce your risk of heart disease, you can skip the heaviest weights and opt for light weights or no weights at all.
“There is not a lot of data on intensity of resistance exercise on cardiovascular health but probably low-to-moderate resistance is plenty for the [heart-health] benefits,” Lavie says. “You may need to add more weight to improve sports performance.”
Don’t skip your morning run or turn the treadmill into a clothes hanger just yet. In addition to reducing cancer risk, alleviating depression, preserving cognitive function and helping maintain a healthy weight, one study found greater cardiovascular fitness was associated with reduced heart disease risk; separate research showed poor cardiovascular fitness could actually be a warning sign of future heart-health problems.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Lavie recommends engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and adding resistance training at least once per week to get heart-health benefits.
The most important takeaway: get moving.
“A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of the heart muscle shrinking and stiffening … and increasing the risk of heart failure,” explains Dr. Mary Ann Bauman, an American Heart Association expert and board-certified primary care internist. “We recommend moving more and sitting less; every little bit helps.”