Can lifting weights improve heart health?


Research into strength training has often focused on bone health, physical function and quality of life in older adults. When it comes to reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease, most people usually think of running or other cardio activity. Yet a recent study from Iowa State University has found that weight lifting is just as good for our hearts. In fact, it is so good, it seems just lifting weights for less than an hour a week may reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70 percent!

What was perhaps just as extraordinary the researchers also found that spending more than an hour in the weight room did not yield any additional benefit when it came to reducing risk of heart attack or stroke. Indeed DC Lee, associate professor of kinesiology, was quoted as saying, “Just two sets of bench presses that take less than 5 minutes could be effective.”

And for an added element of excitement, the results found the benefits of strength training to be independent of aerobic activity; weight training alone is enough.

Data of almost 13,000 adults was analysed after measuring for three health outcomes:

  • cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke that did not result in death
  • all cardiovascular events including death
  • any type of death

Lee was reported saying resistance exercise reduced the risk for all three.

Health benefits extending beyond the heart

Using the same dataset, the researchers also looked at the relationship between resistance exercise and diabetes as well as hypercholesterolemia, or high cholesterol. Resistance exercise lowered the risk for both, with less than an hour a week versus no resistance exercise associated with a 29% lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome (which increases risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes) while the risk of hypercholesterolemia was 32 percent lower. Again, the results for both studies were independent of aerobic exercise.

Resistance training – what does it take?

Lifting weights is the easiest way to place a muscle under load, so it can become bigger and stronger over time. However, the muscle itself is not the only thing that is impacted; joints, bones, ligaments and the central nervous system are also being developed, contributing to vital maintenance as we age, as well as reducing the risk of these other health conditions.

What are the best exercises?

The foundation of any weight training program should be the main compound movements. No matter our age, we should aim to execute a deadlift, squat, push, pull and lunge. Multi joint movements that develop many muscle groups at once, they are also the exercises that enable the development of strength.  

Broader health benefits

The study suggests how little resistance training is required to reduce major health risks, but by further developing our physique even more benefits can be accrued. Muscle is the body’s biggest storage site of glycogen, the form in which we store glucose. As a result, the health benefits linked to maintaining muscle can extend to assisting in decreasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. More muscle means more insulin receptor sites, which can help maintain a healthier level of insulin sensitivity. This can further contribute to better long-term weight management and health, contributing to a reduction in the risk of obesity and associated chronic diseases.

Muscle is so much more than aesthetics. Muscle maintenance as we age can determine how healthy we are and how well we age. This research simply helps further confirm why incorporating weightlifting into an exercise routine will make for a healthier life.

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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