The Importance of Strength Training for Your Heart
By Lana Turnbull
If you want to have and keep a healthy heart, exercise is one of the most important ways to stay physically fit. It you have heart disease risk factors or have had a heart event such as a heart attack, exercise is crucial to your treatment plan and your future heart health. So when it comes to exercising your heart, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For most of us the answer is cardio exercise. After all, the word cardio, (short for cardiovascular) is derived from the Greek kardi or kardio, meaning of the heart. It all makes perfect sense – we need to do regular cardiovascular exercise for our hearts to stay strong and healthy, right? Absolutely! But wait, what about strength training? Where does it stack up in the quest for heart health? It turns out many cardiologists now recommend strength or “resistance training” as a part of their heart patients’ regular exercise programs.
Strength training and your heart.
Research shows that strength training not only helps to build stronger muscles and bones, it also can strengthen your heart. After all, your heart is a muscle, too. The American Heart Association (AHA) now recommends strength training as a tool in maintaining heart health, preventing heart disease, and even helping those with heart disease to improve their condition.
According to Dr. Richard D. Guynes, Cardiologist with Jackson Heart Clinic, the majority of his patients can benefit from weight training.
“In the past we stressed to our patients to walk and get regular cardiovascular exercise,” Dr. Guynes notes. “Now we also see the benefit of moderate weight or strength training for patients of all ages, to help improve cardiovascular function, maintain muscle mass, improve strength and endurance, increase insulin sensitivity, and increase bone density.
“While there are a few heart patients, who because of their specific conditions, should not consider strength training, for the vast majority of people, including those over 65, we recommend a combination of cardio exercise and strength training,” Guynes adds.
Researchers have also found that resistance training can help with the prevention and management of low-back pain, osteoporosis, obesity, and weight control.
Who can benefit from strength training?
You don’t have to want to be a bodybuilder to benefit from weight training. Bulging muscles and defined six packs, might be what you imagine when you think of lifting weights, but the benefit of strength training is more than skin deep. It can make a difference in a person’s functional capacity and independence, by improving one’s ability to perform the simple but important tasks of daily living, like lifting a grandchild or carrying a bag of groceries.
While anyone who considers adding strength training to their regular exercise routine should speak to their physician first, some of the individuals who might receive positive results from lifting weights, include:
• People with major risk factors for coronary artery disease.
• People diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
• Those patients with controlled hypertension.
• Anyone who wants to maintain muscle mass, strength and endurance as they age.
A physician might recommend a stress test prior to releasing a patient to start strength training or they might prescribe a few weeks in a structured cardiac rehab program, where professional therapists or trainers can monitor the patient’s condition during exercise.
When is strength training not recommended?
Some heart patients should not lift weights. Patients with the following conditions should avoid strength training:
• Those with unstable coronary heart disease such as angina.
• Patients with congestive heart failure with fluid overload and shortness of breath.
• People with uncontrolled arrhythmia.
• Patients with some types of valve disease such as aortic stenosis.
• Uncontrolled hypertension with a BP of 180/110 or higher.
Getting with the program
For both healthy people and patients who are receiving treatment for heart disease, one way to get off to a good start on a comprehensive exercise plan is to work with a certified personal trainer or cardiac rehabilitation therapist. Patients who are new to exercising or new to strength training should take it slowly in the beginning and work with a professional who can help create the appropriate exercise program based on the patient’s individual fitness level and health.
Dr. Guynes, typically gives his patients who will benefit from a structured fitness program of cardiovascular exercise and strength training a “prescription” to see a certified trainer or to enter an accredited cardiac rehabilitation program.
“A patient doesn’t have to have suffered a heart attack, or had a bypass, stent or other procedure to qualify for cardiac rehabilitation services,” explains Dr. Guynes. “Sometimes we send a patient with serious cardiovascular disease risk factors to a rehab program to help to lessen their risks through exercise. A cardiac rehab program also represents a safe haven for patients who might be a little nervous about exercising after a heart event or surgery.”
A weight-lifting plan for a healthy heart.
Once a physician has cleared a patient to begin, it doesn’t take much time to reap the heart-healthy benefits of strength training. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults perform 8-10 strength-training exercises (to work the whole body) twice a week. They advise picking a resistance level that allows the patient to fatigue his or her muscles within 8-12 repetitions, but beginners and older or frailer individuals should use much lighter weights, aiming for 10-15 repetitions per set. Following these guidelines shouldn’t take more than 20 to 30 minutes a couple of times per week.
So what’s the take away?
According to Dr. Guynes, it is important for people to realize the potential benefits of combining cardiovascular exercise with moderate strength training to reap the best long and short-term results.
“Strength training can make a big difference in a person’s ability to reduce body fat, increase their metabolic rate, reduce coronary artery disease risk factors, improve lipids, and increase strength and stamina,” Guynes adds. “It’s not about getting bigger, it’s about getting better – and you are never to young or too old to do that.”
Richard D. Guynes, M.D., completed his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, before earning his medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. He also completed his residency in internal medicine and fellowship in cardiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He is board certified in internal medicine, cardiovascular diseases and interventional cardiology.