Killing Heart Disease through Strength Training
By Richard J. Wolff, RDN
Everyone knows heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. What they don’t realize is the important role strength training plays in the prevention and treatment of heart disease. What does strengthening your muscles have to do with your heart? Just about everything.
In case you didn’t know it, your heart is a muscle, a type of cardiac muscle. The blood vessels that carry blood to and from your heart are lined with muscle, called smooth muscle.
With pills, potions and powders promising heart health, it can be difficult to recognize a superstar when one comes along. Strength training has the credentials to be a superstar. A growing body of evidence confirms that living the strength training lifestyle effectively lowers risk of heart disease.
Health agencies around the world (i.e., the National Institutes on Aging, the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association) now recommend strength training for its heart health benefits. Experts agree, it’s time to shift how we think about strength training.
Unfortunately, most people still don’t think of strength training when considering heart health. However, using strength training to prevent and treat heart disease is well established. According to a review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, numerous, high quality, evidence-based studies have demonstrated the cardiovascular benefits of strength training.
In 2007, the American Heart Association published a scientific statement in the journal Circulation. It recommended that strength training be included as a major component of cardiac rehabilitation programs. This was a significant shift in cardiac rehabilitation, given that most medical centers had not been using strength training as a part of their cardiac rehabilitation programs.
The notion that strength training leads to high blood pressure has prevented some physicians from recommending it to their patients with heart disease. This idea has been overturned in recent years. In his book, Body by Science, Dr. Doug McGuff explains why strength training does not lead to high blood pressure.
He also points out that strength training enhances coronary artery blood flow while decreasing the vascular resistance your heart pumps against. In a nut shell, strength training is safe from a cardiovascular standpoint. A 2005 meta-analysis on the effects of strength training on blood pressure found it to be an effective lifestyle intervention for the prevention and treatment of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
Recent research has shown muscular strength to be predictive of survival rates among adults living with chronic heart failure (CHF). Despite initial concerns about the safety of strength training with CHF patients, it is now recognized as safe and beneficial based on the findings of several studies. A 2007 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise evaluated whether or not strength training was an efficient intervention for CHF. Based on the finding of this study it appears that strength training is at least as effective as aerobic-based programs on functional measures of health for CHF patients. Given that strength training is far superior at increasing functional strength when compared to aerobic-based activity, it should be the exercise of choice for adults living with CHF.
Strength training also lowers heart disease risk by preventing comorbidities (other chronic illnesses). A good example is diabetes. When a person becomes diabetic, their risk of dying from heart disease doubles. Any improvement in glucose metabolism (i.e., lower blood sugar readings) can decrease heart disease risk. Several large scientific reviews have shown strength training helps manage and reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes. Building muscle improves blood sugar control by increasing the body’s ability to store and process glucose (blood sugar).
According to Dr. Tim Church, of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, “The biggest consumer of sugar in the blood is muscle. If you keep your muscles happy, they chew up massive amounts of sugar.”
When adult diabetics participate in structured, low-calorie diets combined with weekly strength training, doctors often see significant reductions in medication. To help diabetics lower blood sugar and risk of heart disease, the American Diabetes Association recommends diabetics add strength training to their lifestyle.
In their current guidelines for physical activity, the American Heart Association recommends adults add muscle by strength training at least twice a week. Given the growing support for the cardiovascular benefits of strength training, now is the perfect time to start killing heart disease.
Richard J. Wolff, RDN is the founder of Medfitness strength training studio. 630-762-1784.
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2010;4:293-308.
- Journal of Hypertension. 2005;23:251-259.
- Exercise and Health: Making Sense of Conflicting Recommendations. Timothy Church, MD, MPH, PhD. 2009, SCAN Symposium, Dallas TX.
- Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. 2005;19:652-657.
- Heart Failure Reviews. 2008;13:69-79.
- McGuff, D., Little, J. 2009. Body b Science. The McGraw Hill Companies
- Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise. 2007;39:1910-1917.
- American Heart Association. heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness