Cardiovascular Disease: Does Strength Training Help?

cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease can be prevented with strength training, not just aerobic exercise. Numerous studies have shown that strength training in almost any modality can reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, and heart failure. Although the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NIH) recommends that people who are at risk for cardiovascular disease can gain significant health benefits from as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobics a week, this is not enough to address muscle and joint strength and movement variety to stimulate the nervous system.

To test whether strength training alone can be as beneficial as aerobic training only or a combination of aerobics and strength training, researchers at Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg had four groups of 15 subjects who performed different tasks: Aerobics only, strength training only, both, or nothing (control group). The three exercise groups performed three 45-minute sessions per week for a total of 40 sessions. All subjects had their left ventricular ejection fraction, thigh muscle volume, knee extensor strength, maximum oxygen consumption, endurance, and quality of life assessed before and after the study. When these variables were compared, all results were similar except for the knee extensor test for the aerobics only group which did not improve much. Overall, the researchers concluded that no modality of exercise was superior over another when it comes to improving heart health and cardiovascular disease prevention. Likewise, a Canadian study from University of Alberta that was published in the March 2009 issue of Clinical Rehabilitation showed similar results when two exercise groups — one aerobics only, the other aerobics plus strength training — were compared for cardiovascular benefits. There were almost no differences.

Strength training can also help cardiovascular disease patients in other ways besides strengthening the heart; it can reduce the risk of disability and improve movement quality. When they can move more often as their stamina increases, the more likely they will continue to exercise, breaking the potential fear of movement and further decreasing their risk of cardiovascular disease. So which type of exercise is better? Well, that depends on each person’s goals. Physical therapist and professional breakdancer Tony Ingram from St. John, Newfoundland, suggests that exercisers should take the movement specificity principle into consideration. This principle states that the body gets better at specifically at what it is trained to do.

For example, if gymnasts want to improve their handstand, they should practice the handstand, not doing shoulder presses with heavy dumbbells to strengthen their arms and shoulders. If a grandfather wants to improve his strength and flexibility to pick up his 5-year-old granddaughter, then he should practice squatting while holding a weight in front of him, such as a medicine ball or a sandbag to simulate a child’s weight, to improve leg, hip, back, and grip strength. The leg press machine at the gym may help him gain some lower body strength, but based on the movement specificity principle, the exercise may improve very little in helping him reach his goal.

Cardiovascular disease patients can help themselves to a buffet of strength training options, ranging from kettlebell and dumbbell training to old-school body-weight training, such as lunges, push-ups, and pull-ups. Even classical martial art training, like kung fu and aikido, can improve full-body strength and cardiovascular endurance. Adding variety to any workout can prevent boredom and the “same-old-routine” syndrome, which can reduce the dropout rate.

By Nick Ng

Sources:
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise
NIH
Clinical Rehabilitation
American Council on Exercise
Bboy Science

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