Heart Health

Add Strength Training to Your Workout Program

While aerobic exercise is usually emphasized by fitness experts, strength training can also provide cardiovascular benefits, according to the experts at Harvard Medical School.

“Strength training maintains and may even increase muscle mass, which people tend to lose as they age,” Dr. Rania Mekary, a visiting assistant professor of surgery at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor at MCPHS University, told the Harvard Heart Letter.

Increased muscle mass, according to a news release from the Health Letter,  has a trickle-down effect that benefits blood vessels and the heart.

Boosting muscle mass speeds up metabolism, which helps people burn more calories, even at rest. A faster metabolism also helps prevent weight gain, which puts extra strain on the heart. Strength training seems to be especially important for keeping off belly fat. This so-called visceral fat, which surrounds the internal organs, is particularly dangerous,

Mekary and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that healthy men who did weight training for 20 minutes a day had less of an age-related increase in abdominal fat compared with men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic exercise.

Strength training can help control blood sugar levels by drawing glucose from the bloodstream to power muscles. High blood sugar, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, is also a leading risk factor for heart disease. Building more muscle mass also makes the body more sensitive to the effects of insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.

The Harvard experts say that strength training can be done with resistance bands, small hand weights, or weight machines. A well-rounded program works all major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. Start by warming up for a few minutes by moving your muscles without weights, and don’t forget to stretch at the end. Aim for one or two sets of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise, using a weight or resistance that’s challenging but manageable. You can find more detailed information in the Harvard Special Health Report Strength and Power Training: A guide for older adults; see

But the Harvard experts also emphasize that you must talk to your doctor, because the activity will be challenging to your heart. They also said that it’s better to find a supervised program, such as one at a senior center or gym, so you can be sure you’re learning the right form.

For more information on other heart-related issues, you can subscribe to the Harvard Heart Letter by clicking here.