Weight Training For Your Heart
New advisory says resistance exercise can reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
In today’s weight room, you’re as likely to see a grandmother working her glutes as a quarterback working his quads now that resistance exercise is recognized as vital to building strong muscles and bones.
Now the American Heart Association (AHA) says pumping iron is also good for that most important of muscles–the heart.
In a new scientific advisory, the AHA says that for healthy adults–and some cardiac patients–a regular program of weight training not only increases muscle strength and endurance, it also improves function of the heart and lungs, enhances glucose metabolism, reduces coronary-disease risk factors, and boosts well-being.
“Over the last five or six years, there’s been increasing scientific evidence that resistance training offers far more than just `body beautiful,'” says physiologist Barry A. Franklin, a coauthor of the AHA advisory and director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. “After reviewing the literature, we came to the rather startling conclusion that resistance training, like aerobic exercise, can improve cardiovascular function and favorably modify many of the risk factors associated with coronary heart disease.”
Aerobic exercise–such as walking and jogging–is still considered the most heart-healthy form of physical activity, states the advisory, which was published this year in the journal Circulation. A complementary program of weight training, however, can provide such important additional benefits that the AHA urges healthy adults and many low-risk cardiac patients to do a single set of one to ten different resistance exercises two or three days a week.
“When the muscles are stronger, there is less of a demand placed on the heart,” notes Franklin, who is also president of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). “Although resistance training may not improve someone’s ability to perform on a treadmill, it will help their heart function more efficiently when they have to lift or carry objects, which is what real life is about.”
Resistance training also can play a significant role in weight control, since it helps build and maintain lean body mass, he notes. More lean tissue means a higher metabolic rate, which translates to an increased number of calories burned throughout the day.
For men with what the advisory terms “low-risk cardiovascular disease,” an appropriately prescribed and supervised weight training program can be particularly beneficial, “since many cardiac patients lack the physical strength and/or self-confidence to perform common activities of daily living.” For other groups of cardiac patients–including women and people with more severe disease–the AHA experts caution that more research is needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of resistance exercise.
Certain conditions may make resistance training inadvisable, the advisory notes. These include unstable angina, uncontrolled hypertension, uncontrolled dysrhythmias, and a recent history of congestive heart failure that has not been thoroughly evaluated and treated. People with chronic health conditions should check with a physician before starting any new exercise program, says Franklin, who also recommends learning weight-training basics from a qualified exercise professional.
Some doctors may be unaware of this newly identified link between resistance exercise and heart health, however, and may still follow the out-dated practice of discouraging weight training for all people with cardiovascular ailments.
“The old stereotype was that the only people who should be lifting weights are guys with 18-inch arms,” says George A. Kelley, who heads a research group in the department of kinesiology and physical education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “When you lift weights, your blood pressure goes up acutely, which made some people believe that resistance training might increase blood pressure.”
However, recent research suggests that a regular program of resistance exercise may actually lower a person’s blood pressure at rest. Kelley’s meta-analysis of 11 studies–published in a recent issue of the journal Hypertension–found that individuals who participated in a program of regular weight training experienced about a three-point reduction in both their resting systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
“These reductions are small,” he acknowledges. “But decreases of as little as two points have been shown to reduce mortality from stroke and coronary heart disease.” There is little research examining the effect of resistance training on people with high blood pressure, cautions Kelley, who says more studies are needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of weight training for hypertensives.
In addition to boosting heart health, weight training also can help prevent and manage other chronic conditions, including low back pain, osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes, and geriatric frailty, notes the AHA advisory. The document recommends the following program, which can be completed in 20 to 30 minutes at home or in a gym, with free weights or strength-training machines:
* Perform a single set (8 to 15 repetitions) of 8 to 10 different exercises that train the major muscle groups, two to three days per week. (For example, chest press, shoulder press, triceps extension, biceps curl, pull-down, lower-back extension, abdominal crunch/curl-up, quadriceps extension or leg press, leg curls, and calf raise.)
* Healthy participants younger than 50 years should perform 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise. Cardiac patients and healthy participants older than 50 should do more repetitions with a lighter weight, performing 10 to 15 repetitions.
* Use slow, controlled movements (two seconds up and four seconds down). Don’t hold your breath, and be sure to stretch.
“You should be able to complete that last repetition with good form, but if the weight is right for you, it should be just about all you can do,” says Dr. Sandeep Simlote, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. “It’s particularly important that people with cardiovascular disease exercise under the guidance of a qualified trainer.”
Many patients are surprised when he recommends lifting weights, says Dr. Simlote, who began incorporating resistance exercise into his cardiac rehab program about five years ago when the ACSM recommended weight training for this population.
“I recently treated a woman in her 80s, six weeks after she had bypass surgery,” he says. “She was amazed when I advised her to do weight training. But once she began, she liked it, and she subsequently noted that her overall feeling of well-being increased.”
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