Strength training & the heart

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MOST people who read the health pages in this newspaper, will by now, hopefully, be fully convinced of the great benefits of regular exercise to health and longevity.

Exercise benefits both the body and the brain. These benefits include helping with weight loss, being good for your muscles and bones, increasing your energy levels, making you feel happier, reducing your risk of chronic (long-term) diseases, helping with the health of your skin, and helping with your brain health and memory.

However, for those wishing to know which form of exercise might bring more benefit to the heart, new research is helping to answer that question.

Utilising data that was obtained during the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the USA, researchers analysed cardiovascular risk factors (that is risk factors for heart attacks and heart disease) in more than 4,000 adults, as a function of static exercise (such as strength training) and/or dynamic activity (such as walking or cycling).

Interestingly, the researchers found that 36 per cent of adults within the 21-44 years age group, and 25 per cent of adults older than 45 years were involved in some form of strength training activity. By contrast, 28 per cent of those in the age group 21-44 years, and 21 per cent of those in the age group older than 45 years, actually engaged in some form of dynamic physical activity.

Lower rates for risk factors

Both static exercise and dynamic activities were associated with between 30-70 per cent lower rates of cardiovascular risk factors, with the greatest reductions being for youth and for static activity such as strength training. In other words, in the more than 4,000 adults in the study, strength training appeared to protect the heart better than activities such as walking or cycling.

However, dynamic activities such as walking and cycling still reduced the risk of high blood pressure, being overweight and obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol by between 33-66 per cent when compared with individuals who engaged in no physical activity. The benefits of dynamic activity were especially pronounced for those who were overweight.

The results of this research were presented in November 2018 at the American College of Cardiology Latin America Conference.

Dedicated to exercise

The research also found that while both static and dynamic activities in older adults were significantly associated with a lower risk of being overweight and less prone to diabetes, these physical activities were not associated with high cholesterol levels. In other words, it is difficult for a person to have high cholesterol levels if they are firmly dedicated to both static and dynamic physical activities.

Notably, the beneficial effect may be because a higher intensity is often associated with strength training activities than with dynamic activities. We should also note that almost everyone gets some dynamic activity from daily living — such as walking around inside the house and outside — but not everyone lifts heavy objects or weights.

These research findings therefore underscore the importance of physical activity — involving both dynamic (aerobic) and static (muscle strengthening) exercise — in reducing coronary heart disease, reducing risk factors, and maintaining the health of the heart.

International guidelines for good health recommend moderate-intensity aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes per week (30 minutes daily), and some muscle-strengthening activity for two days each week. We all should aim to achieve these targets.

Reducing health care costs through prevention

The aim of new physical activity guidelines is to target not only cardiovascular health but also brain health, reducing chronic conditions, encouraging community engagement, and reducing the high cost of health care associated with seven of the 10 most common preventable diseases.

In light of these findings, people should be encouraged to do both static and dynamic exercises, and to find a physical activity that they like and make it a lifelong habit. Further, if you already do one form of exercise, add the other form.

While heart disease may not yet be on the minds of young adults, the research found that the beneficial effects of static exercises were even greater for individuals in the younger age group. Irrespective of age, therefore, people should be motivated to engage in these forms of physical activities and to make every effort to take good care of their health.


Dr Derrick Aarons MD, PhD, is a consultant bioethicist and family physician; a specialist in ethical issues in health care, research, and the life sciences; the health registrar and head of the health secretariat for the Turks and Caicos Islands, and a member of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC).

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