Can stronger muscles pump up your heart health?

Strength training may be just as good as aerobic activity for reducing cardiovascular risk.

Any type of movement that makes your heart work harder than usual — brisk walking, dancing, or cycling — will benefit your heart health. But many people don't realize that targeted exercises to strengthen muscles throughout your body may also help stave off heart disease.

"In the past, strong muscles were considered beneficial mainly from a functional standpoint — that is, they make tasks such as carrying groceries and doing laundry easier," says Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies the role of physical activity in disease prevention. Those perks are particularly important as people age.

Muscle vs. fat

Now, there's more interest in looking at how a higher muscle mass may lower the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, says Dr. Lee. Muscle mass declines naturally with age, and most people replace lost muscle with fat. Muscle-building exercises can help counteract that trend.

Studies suggest that strength training may boost your metabolic rate (the rate at which your body converts energy stores into working energy) by up to 15%. You'll burn more calories, even while you're sitting or sleeping. One study found that healthy men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less of an age-related increase in abdominal fat (which is especially hard on the heart) compared with men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic activities. In addition, muscle tissue is more metabolically active, so it helps control blood sugar and lowers insulin resistance. That helps prevent type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease.

Getting stronger

Strength training can be done with resistance bands, small hand weights, or weight machines. If you don't want to join a gym, considering buying a set of resistance bands, Dr. Lee suggests. They're light and inexpensive, and you can do almost any kind of muscle-strengthening exercise with them. Those that resemble large rubber bands with loops or handles on each end are often easiest to use. Many brands follow the same progressive color scale, ranging from yellow (the easiest, least resistance), then red, green, blue, and black (the most difficult, highest resistance).

A well-rounded program works all major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. It's best if you can take a class (perhaps at a local Y or senior center) to learn the different types of resistance band exercises. But you can start by trying the two exercises featured here. Be sure to warm up first by marching in place and swinging your arms for a few minutes. Use the band that gives the least resistance (the stretchiest one) and aim for a mid-range level of effort (say, about 5 or 6 on a scale of 10). Start with a single set of eight to 12 repetitions (reps) of each move, then gradually build up to two or three sets as you feel able. Rest for a minute or two between each set. Additional exercises and more detailed instructions are available in the Harvard Special Health Report Workout Workbook; to order, go to www.health.harvard.edu/ww.

Squat with resistance tubing

Starting position: Stand on the resistance tubing with your feet hip-width apart. Bring the resistance tubing up behind your shoulders so that you are holding the handles on top of your shoulders with your palms facing forward.

Movement: Hinge forward at the hips and bend your knees to lower your buttocks toward the floor as if sitting down in a chair. Throughout the movement, press your weight back into your heels and keep the handles on top of your shoulders. Return to the starting position.

V-raise with resistance tubing

Starting position: Stand with the resistance tubing under your feet. Position your feet hip-width apart and place your hands at your sides with thumbs pointing forward as you hold the handles.

Movement: Squeeze your shoulder blades together while you slowly lift your arms toward the two front corners of the room, creating a V as you raise the resistance tubing. Go no higher than your shoulders. Slowly return to the starting position.

Image: © julos/Getty Images
Exercise photos by Michael Carroll

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