Can Stronger Muscles Pump Up Your Heart Health?

by Henry Gould – July 8th, 2020

For those of us trying to lead healthy lifestyles, most probably have some sort of goal in mind when we workout. Whether it’s losing a few pounds, gaining muscle, or simply staying active to help try and ward off disease, we’re all typically working towards a particular goal, whatever that may be.

According to the World Health Organization, heart disease and stroke are the two leading causes of death worldwide. This is a pretty staggering statistic, considering that much of what we do in our lifestyles can make a massive impact on heart health, especially with diet and exercise.

But how much exercise is enough? Can you do too much? If elite endurance athletes are, in theory, “the fittest people on earth”, does that mean they have the healthiest hearts? Maybe not.

In this very interesting article from Harvard Health (“Can stronger muscles pump up your heart health?”), Dr. I-Min Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard, says that despite our notions around what constitutes fitness, strength training may actually be more important for staving off body fat, and in turn, keeping the heart healthy.

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Some interesting facts from the article:

  • Strength training may boost your metabolic rate by up to 15%, meaning you’ll convert and burn calories more efficiently, even when you’re not exercising 
  • One study found men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less age-related abdominal fat (especially hard on the heart) compared with men who did the same amount of aerobic activity

Another article backing up the same conclusion from Reuters (“Weightlifting better at reducing heart fat than aerobic exercise”), which studied obese participants who either did no activity, weight training, or aerobic exercise. At the end, only the weight training subjects had significantly lowered pericardial adipose tissue around the heart.

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Now, this isn’t to say aerobic exercise is a waste of time; far from it. Aerobic exercise is not only fun and enjoyable – running, swimming, cycling, rowing – but it has many positive benefits for the heart and overall wellness. If both aerobic and weight training can be combined as part of a healthy lifestyle, that seems to be the way to go. However, as we age and many of these aerobic activities become harder to do, weight training seems to be the best way to stay heart healthy.

As for the endurance athletes and those who can do seemingly inhuman feats of strength like ultramarathons, we assume they must have the healthiest hearts of all. Not so, as it appears excessively strenuous exercise can push the heart too far, causing lasting damage like myocardial fibrosis and atrial fibrillation (“The impact of excessive endurance exercise on the heart”). A heart is only built to do so much, and although it can both grow stronger and weaker depending on the activities we do, it can also be pushed too far; “the law of diminishing returns”.

Overall your ultimate goal should be personal health and wellness. How you get there is up to you and your personal preferences, but remember that just because you’re not running 100km a week, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any less heart healthy.

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