When it comes to boosting heart health, many people think of running, walking or other cardio-based activity. But if you’re not adding some form of bone-strengthening, muscle-boosting resistance exercise as well, you could be missing out.
That’s according to exercise medicine specialists who say that resistance training (also known as strength or weight training) is not only working wonders on bone health, but surprisingly heart health too.
“The evidence is pretty strong,” said Professor Tim Olds, an exercise research expert from the University of South Australia.
“Strength training in the past has focused on bone strengthening and muscle stability to avoid things like osteoarthritis.
“But there is a substantial body of literature looking at cardiovascular benefits of resistance training. Pretty much all the studies show that it’s positive,” he told The New Daily.
A longitudinal study published this month in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise is one of the larger trials to connect the dots.
The US researchers analysed data of nearly 13,000 adults and found that lifting weights for less than an hour a week may reduce the risk for a heart attack or stroke. The benefits were independent of running, walking or other cardio activity.
“People may think they need to spend a lot of time lifting weights, but just two sets of bench presses that take less than five minutes could be effective,” lead study author and associate professor of kinesiology, Duck-chul Lee said.
So positive is the connection between resistance exercise and overall health that many governments and leading health organisations around the world are now recommending adding at least two sessions of strength work to our weekly mix of fitness activity.
How does weight training protect the heart?
One possible explanation for this benefit, experts say, is the role of muscles in reducing inflammation.
“Muscle is an endocrine organ,” Professor Tony Blazevich, director of the Centre for Exercise and Sports Science Research, said.
“It’s a tissue that can release anti-inflammatory molecules. It releases signalling molecules to lots of different organs around the body, and in this way it really contributes to health.”
By increasing muscle mass, and activating those muscles, more of the molecules are released and the anti-inflammatory response kicks in, Professor Blazevich told The New Daily.
“And of course inflammation is a real key to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and a whole bunch of other metabolic disorders,” he said.
Another reason has to do with the vascular system, our veins and arteries, Professor Olds said.
“When you’re doing weight training you’re actually generating really high blood pressures, which is one of the reasons why in the 1960s people said if you had high blood pressure you should never, ever do resistance training.
“But this could be a good thing to make the arteries more elastic and respond more appropriately,” he said.
Strength training might also help with blood-glucose control, which could reduce diabetes risk and control blood sugar, Professor Olds said.
How can I get started?
The first step is to join a gym, Professor Olds recommended.
“One of the good things about the gym is you can see your progress,” he said.
“You did 10 kilograms last week and can do 12.5 [kilograms] this week. You can’t really do that with a home regime unless you’ve got a whole range of dumbbells.”
Professor Olds said anyone new to the exercise should try the activity with no weight at all to get a feel for the neuromuscular coordination needed.
After a week, you can add the weights and build up from there.
“Just take it really, really slowly at first, you’ve got the rest of your life.” Professor Olds said.
Focus on progressive overload, he said. This means starting with a weight that you can easily lift for around eight repetitions. The following week, raise the repetitions to 10 or 12. Once you can do that comfortably, you might move to a heavier weight the following week or month.
A system called the split routine is really useful, Professor Olds said, which simply means rotating the body parts that you train.
By alternating the days you exercise different muscle groups, for example in your back, arms, legs or shoulders, the body has time to recover and strengthen.
“When you do resistance training, the muscle is actually torn down. It takes time to rebuild, and it rebuilds itself bigger and stronger than previously,” Professor Olds said.
Do you have to join a gym to weight train?
The best way to track your progress and gain access to a range of machines and fitness equipment is by heading to the gym, the experts said.
But this isn’t an option for some people – cost, location and time are just some of the limiting factors. While others simply prefer the fresh outdoors.
So, The New Daily asked our fitness gurus for some alternatives.
“Other ways you could get in a heavy workout is in the garden, pushing around rocks and things like that,” Professor Olds said.
But even then, it’s a bit more intermittent. “You’re not going to spend every morning lifting rocks,” he joked.
“You could do simple things like carry bags when you do the shopping. But that would be relatively low intensity compared to the kinds of stuff you get at the gym.”
If you can’t lift stuff, then lower stuff, Professor Blazevich suggested.
He pointed to a recent Taiwan study that found that eccentric exercise, such as walking down stairs, can be more beneficial than concentric exercise, or walking up stairs, in this example.
“We know that when the muscle is active and lengthening it’s doing something unique and interesting,” Professor Blazevich said.
“Walk down stairs, walk down a hill. Don’t take the elevator, and that can count as part of your resistance training.”
Body weight exercises such as push ups, chin ups and squats are also better than nothing, Professor Blazevich said.
“If every day you did a couple of bodyweight squats and push ups, you’re already well on your way to getting this resistance exercise that you need everyday,” he said.
“Something I see people do is they walk up to turn off the TV, and before they go back to sit down, they spend three or four minutes to do some push ups on their knees, or do a few bodyweight squats; just to the point where they’re breathing a bit harder, and that means of course your muscles are being worked,” he said.