Most exercisers believe that in order to improve their heart health in the gym, they must run, bike, swim, or otherwise raise their heart rate - and the longer the better, right? After all, "cardiovascular" exercise is called that for a reason.
But, without diminishing the heart-health benefits of cardiovascular exercise, for individuals who despise even the thought of running a mile, it turns out that strength training can greatly improve your heart health as well.
"Strength training is often ignored for its usefulness in improving cardiovascular health, but it can be a valuable supplement in lowering the risk of heart disease," says Dr. Timothy Miller of Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. In fact, evidence suggests that strength training is just as beneficial – if not better – than cardio for improving some markers of heart health.
Here, check out four significant benefits of strength training that convert into a happier, healthier heart.
Better Blood Pressure
Appalachian State University research demonstrates that moderate-intensity strength exercise dramatically decreases blood pressure. That is true both in the short term (immediately following exercise) and over time, according to Scott Collier, a researcher and professor of cardiovascular exercise physiology.
After all, while strength training increases blood flow while exercising and recovering from that exercise, it ultimately gives your cardiovascular system more places to send its blood, lessening pressure on your arterial walls, said Collier.
This blood pressure effect may be even greater in hypertensive women than in males, according to Collier's research, which shows that strength training outperforms aerobic exercise in lowering blood pressure.
Lower Triglyceride and Cholesterol Levels
When fatty chemicals in the blood, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, reach dangerously high levels, they can clog arteries and contribute to heart attacks and strokes. Strength training, like cardiovascular exercise, has been shown to lower them, according to Dr. Haitham Ahmed, a staff cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Strength training may also increase how high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the "good" cholesterol, operates in the body to protect against heart disease, in addition to lowering overall fat levels in the blood. In fact, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, young men who frequently strength train had better-functioning HDL cholesterol compared to those who never lift weights.
Reduced Fat Around the Heart
Visceral fat, sometimes known as "belly fat," is found in the abdominal cavity and surrounds the body's internal organs, including the heart. As a result, it should come as no surprise that visceral fat levels (as opposed to subcutaneous fat, which rests directly beneath the skin) are most strongly connected with cardiovascular disease and death, according to Miller. Excess visceral fat, regardless of weight, increases the risk of heart disease, according to new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Strength training is essential in the fight against visceral fat. In a 2015 Obesity research of 10,500 males, those who strength trained for 20 minutes per day accumulated less age-related visceral fat over a 12-year period than those who engaged in cardiovascular activity for the same length of time. "Strength training accelerates the body's metabolic rate by growing lean body mass, or muscle," Miller explains. "This has the added benefit of reducing fatty tissue in the stomach and around the heart."
"One of the first things to go with bad sleep is cardiovascular health," says Collier, explaining that sleep deprivation produces increased inflammation, which causes cellular damage to the cardiovascular system. Restless nights have been linked to decreased insulin sensitivity and fat metabolism, as well as increases in visceral fat, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
However, according to Collier's research, which was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, conducting resistance exercise, particularly in the evening, can dramatically improve your sleep. People who did any resistance exercise slept better than those who did not, but those who did their strength workouts at 7 p.m. slept the best. compared to those who lifted earlier, slept more soundly, waking up fewer times during the night.