The key to a healthy body and a long life is a healthy heart, this much we know for sure. Put in the simplest terms, a healthy heart pumps blood effectively and efficiently throughout the body, delivering essential nutrients and oxygen to all of your organs, which is what keeps you alive and well. So, if you want to be healthy and thrive for the long haul, protecting your heart is a great place to start, especially as February is American Heart Month.
A healthy heart comes down to maintaining a balanced diet (choose nutrient-rich foods and lean proteins and avoid foods high in saturated fat), healthy habits (don’t smoke! manage your stress, get enough sleep etc.), and of course, practice regular physical activity.
Where exercise is concerned, historically people have pushed the importance of cardiovascular fitness as the most valuable type of exercise to keep your heart healthy and strong. But recent research is suggesting that strength and resistance training might be just as beneficial and as crucial to heart health. Yes, this is great news for anyone who dreads cardio, but more importantly, it’s great news for everyone who is looking for accessible ways to keep their heart healthy and reduce the risk of heart disease today and in the future.
A Health Lifestyle Starts With Healthy Workout Habits
It should come as no surprise that if you want to be healthy, you need to move your body. It’s wellness 101 — physical activity is a crucial part of a healthy life. And we’re not even talking about losing weight or being totally ripped; maintaining a regular fitness routine is important for a healthy mind, a healthy body, and especially a healthy heart. If you want to protect your health and feel better today and in the future, which includes better sleep, less depression, and a reduced risk of chronic health issues, then you need to move more and sit less.
There are four main types of exercise (though many fitness activities incorporate elements of more than one category of fitness): balance, endurance, flexibility, and strength training. They all have unique benefits for your body, and a combination of all four exercises is ideal for healthy adults. The American Heart Association recommends variety in terms of your physical activity, because it not only keeps you engaged, but also ensures your workouts will be effective. While routine might be important, it can also get really boring really fast if there is too much repetition and not enough excitement. Mix it up, but be consistent. And while cardio is definitely a good idea, and focusing on balance and endurance matters, recent recommendations support that strength training is super important, if not the most important fitness plan for a healthy heart.
The Benefits of Strength Training for Heart Health
As a part of a balanced workout regimen, the American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice per week. Whether those two days (or more) are in conjunction with other forms of exercise or not, it is important to focus on building muscle and toning your body as a way to protect your heart and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
While cardio exercise has been shown to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduce plaque buildup to improve blood flow, and help maintain a healthy weight, it’s not the only form of exercise that is important for heart health.
In 2018, a survey of 4,000 adults revealed that static activity (aka strength training where you flex muscles without joint movement) had stronger links to reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases than dynamic activity (think walking, cycling, or any exercise that involves joint movement). “Both strength training and aerobic activity appeared to be heart healthy, even in small amounts, at the population level,” explained Dr. Maia P. Smith, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at St. George’s University in Grenada, for Medical News Today. She continued to explain that while static activity showed more potential benefits than dynamic exercise, the most significant benefits occurred with participants who engaged in both types of fitness.
A study in the March 2019 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that of the 13,000 adults surveyed, “those who did at least an hour per week of weight training (using free weights or weight machines) had a 40% to 70% lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared with those who did not exercise.” And beyond that, the study did not find any benefits of doing more than one hour of strength training, as long as the participants hit the one-hour mark. And the number of days people worked out also had very little impact on the results; the bigger factor was that they did an hour of strength training to reduce their risk of heart disease.
Why does strength training positively affect heart health, you might ask? A July 2019 study published by JAMA Cardiology monitored and evaluated 32 adults who were obese and sedentary, but who were healthy in terms of heart disease or diabetes and other related conditions. They were randomly assigned to a three-month program with some participants practicing aerobic exercise, some weight training, and some with no physical activity. The findings indicate that compared with the no-exercise group, “those in the aerobics and weight training groups had less fat directly touching the heart, by 32% and 24%, respectively.” And those participants who only practiced weight training “had decreased fat that lies just outside the heart sac (called the pericardium). Having less fat in and around the pericardium is associated with a lower risk of heart disease,” according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Experts agree that strength training can help increase bone strength as well as the strength of the muscles and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). It can also lower risk of injury and improve muscle mass so that your body burns calories even after your workout is over. All of those effects are associated with improved heart health and reduced risk of heart disease.
More Is Not Always More
While we live in a society where bigger is often better and more is more, that’s not necessarily the case where your workouts are concerned. Quality over quantity is often a good rule of thumb, balance is key, and sometimes less is actually more. In other words, for maximum benefits, don’t only focus on cardio, don’t underestimate the power of strength training, embrace variety and take a freakin’ rest day.
In terms of strength and resistance training, you don’t need to lift your body weight in barbells or do five hours of heavy lifting. Try to incorporate simple, weight-bearing exercises using a variety of props such as free weights, machines, or even your own weight to work the entire body. You can use tools such as hand weights, resistance bands, and kettle bells, or stick to simple moves such as planks, pushups, tricep dips, and squats (where no weights are necessary, and you use your body weight for resistance). You can do your strength training separately form cardio workouts or you can add resistance on to an existing workout. And during strength training you’ll do more than just tone and build muscle. “Flexibility work can be incorporated in the warm-up and during the exercises to make sure you are completing the full range of the movement,” explains Noam Tamir, CSCS, founder of TS Fitness, for Self Magazine. You can also work on coordination and balance during strength training, resulting in a full body workout that not only improves your body composition, but benefits your heart as well.
And don’t forget about the value of a proper recovery. According to Jonathan N. Mike, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., exercise scientists at the University of New Mexico, “recovery from exercise training is an integral component of the overall training program and is essential for optimal performance and improvement.”
To break it down in scientific terms, “muscle recovery occurs during and primarily after exercise and is characterized by continued removal of metabolic end products (e.g., lactate and hydrogen ions). During exercise, recovery is needed to reestablish intramuscular blood flow for oxygen delivery, which promotes replenishment of phosphocreatine stores (used to resynthesize ATP), restoration of intramuscular pH (acid/base balance), and regaining of muscle membrane potential (balance between sodium and potassium exchanges inside and outside of cell).” In other words, recovery is when your body not only rests, but also rebuilds, and prevents you from burning out.
Remember that a healthy heart starts with healthy habits and incorporating strength training into that balanced routine is key. You can start slow and small with an hour a week of light weight training, and build up your regimen from there, but don’t overlook the importance of toning and building muscle to protect your heart. It will help you feel better today, for sure, but more importantly, it will help you live a long and heart-healthy life.