Strength Training for the Heart
Take a moment to fully appreciate the most awesome muscle in your body that does double-duty as an organ, your heart. As the engine that propels your cardiovascular system, your heart’s ability to pump blood to your lungs determines your vitality and capacity for life. Just like all the muscles in your body, the heart muscle gets stronger and more efficient with regular training.
By strengthening your heart, you can increase your stamina, reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. To become stronger, it must be exercised like any other muscle of the body by performing aerobic (or cardio) exercise plus strength training.
During aerobic exercise, the heart fills up with blood and pumps it out to the rest of the body. With training, the heart becomes more efficient, pumping more blood with each beat as it delivers oxygen to the working muscles. Any activity that involves the continuous rhythmic contraction of large muscle groups (the legs, the back, the arms) for more than five minutes is considered aerobic, literally meaning “with oxygen.” This includes a wide range of activities such as dancing, brisk walking or hiking, jogging or running, stair-climbing, and swimming, to name a few. It’s important to elevate your heart rate above resting level in order to improve heart function.
How often, how hard, how long? This depends on your goal. For health benefits, such as reducing your risk of heart disease, our national guidelines recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of brisk walking or other moderate exercise most days of the week (at least five). If you can’t do it all at once, accumulate 30 minutes by doing it in shorter doses. Some experts recommend taking 10,000 steps each day, the equivalent of approximately 5 miles at 2.5 feet to each stride. For cardiovascular conditioning benefits, you need to establish your training heart rate range and do a minimum of 20-30 minutes in that range three times a week. For weight loss, 45-60 minutes of moderate activity are needed every day to add up to significant caloric expenditure.
Strength training, where the muscles generate more force than in an endurance exercise, offers additional benefits to the heart. In strength training the heart muscle contracts forcefully to push the blood out and the overload creates micro-tears in the muscle fibers which the body repairs, making the muscle stronger. The result is a stronger heart which, in conjunction with the benefits of cardio exercise, is also efficient at pumping.
Be kind to your heart! Appropriate exercise strengthens the heart so it beats more efficiently, does not rise as high and returns to normal faster after physical or emotional stress. A combination of aerobic exercise and strength training should be part of your regular fitness program. But remember that health and fitness are not always synonymous. Only a graded exercise stress test can determine the health of your heart.