Exercises that build strength can benefit the heart more than aerobic activities, such as walking and cycling, according to recent research.
woman's hand holding weight
New research suggests that strength training is the best exercise for heart health.

A survey of 4,000 adults revealed that static activity, such as strength training, had stronger links to reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases than dynamic activity, such as walking and cycling.

The researchers point out, however, that any amount of either kind of exercise brings benefits, and that it is probably better to do both than to increase either.

“Both strength training and aerobic activity appeared to be heart healthy, even in small amounts, at the population level,” says Dr. Maia P. Smith, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at St. George’s University in Grenada.

She explains, however, that while “static activity appeared more beneficial than dynamic,” the findings also revealed that those who engaged in both kinds of activity “fared better” than those who just increased the amount of only one type.

The study featured at the 2018 American College of Cardiology Latin America Conference that took place last week in Lima, Peru.

Recommended amounts and type of exercise

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), guidelines recommend that adults in the United States should be physically active for at least 150 minutes each week.

This activity should consist of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or a combination. It is better to spread the exercise across the week than complete it all in 1 or 2 days.

The guidelines also advise doing exercise that strengthens the muscles, such as resistance or weight training. People should do this on at least 2 days per week.

Even greater benefits accrue from 300 minutes of exercise per week, say the AHA. They also recommend breaking up prolonged bouts of sitting — even getting up and doing some light activity is better than just sitting, they add.

The Go4Life program from the National Institute of Aging (NIA), which is one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), advises older adults to do four types of exercise:

  • Endurance, or aerobic, exercises that increase breathing and raise heart rate.
  • Strength, or resistance, exercises that strengthen major muscle groups in the upper and lower body and improve their function.
  • Balance exercises to reduce the risk of falls and the disabilities that they can cause.
  • Flexibility exercises that stretch the body and increase a person’s range of movement.

Aerobic activity includes walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, gardening and all forms of sports, such as golf, tennis, and volleyball.

Push-ups, static rowing, resistance training, dips, arm and leg raises, and hand grips are all examples of strength-building exercises.

Practicing Tai Chi and yoga can improve balance and flexibility as can simple exercises that involve the use the body or everyday objects, such as a chair.

Types of exercise and cardiovascular risk

Dr. Smith and her colleagues used data from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey on 4,086 adults in the U.S.

This included information that individuals gave about types of physical activity and the presence of cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, being overweight, having high cholesterol, and having diabetes.

The team analyzed the cardiovascular risk factors against the type of activity in terms of whether it was static, such as weight training, or dynamic, such as walking or cycling.

After adjusting the results for age, gender, ethnicity, and smoking status, they looked at the results in two age groups: 21-44 years (younger adults) and over 45 years (older adults).

These revealed that 36 percent of the younger adults compared with 25 percent of the older adults reported doing static exercise.

For dynamic exercise, 28 percent of the younger adults compared with 21 percent of the older adults said that they engaged in this type.

‘Both activity types were beneficial’

Doing either type of exercise was linked to a lowering of cardiovascular risk factors of between 30 and 70 percent. The link was strongest for younger adults and doing static exercises.

Dr. Smith suggests that future studies should do more to differentiate between the two types of exercise so that scientists can see their separate effects on health more clearly.

Only around 1 in 5 adults and teens in the U.S. meet the recommended 150 minutes per week of “heart-pumping” activity, say the AHA.

With this in mind, perhaps the more pressing message of the recent study, as Dr. Smith concludes, is that – since “both activity types were beneficial” – clinicians should encourage people to “exercise regardless.”

The important thing is to make sure they are engaging in physical activity.”

Dr. Maia P. Smith