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Health Benefits of Strength Training Pile Up

Heart Health Independent of Aerobic Exercise

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a study finding that resistance training alone, and combined with aerobic training, lowers the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Less than an hour a week of resistance training was associated with a 29 percent lower risk, compared with no resistance exercise. Larger amounts of resistance exercise did not provide further benefits: https://www.cbass.com/resistanceTrainingMetabolicHealth.html

We now have a study finding that lifting weights for up to an hour a week may reduce risk of heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70 percent. Once again, more than 60 minutes of resistance exercise did not significantly add to risk reduction. The results show that the benefits of strength training are independent of running, walking or other aerobic activity. Significantly, the subjects in both studies came from the Aerobic Center Longitudinal Study (ACLS), based on the grounds of the Cooper Aerobic Center in Dallas, Texas, founded and overseen by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics. Moreover, the senior researcher in the new study, Steven N. Blair, Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, was once director of research at the Cooper Institute of Aerobics.

The new study was published October 29, 2018, ahead of print in the journal Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise.

Iowa State University Professor of Kinesiology Duck-chul Lee and his colleagues analyzed data from 12,501 adults (mean age 47) in the Aerobic Center Longevity Study. Subjects were examined at least twice at the Cooper Clinic between 1987 and 2006; they reported their exercise training (RE and aerobic) in medical history questionnaires. (I completed these questionnaires numerous times and found them to be quite detailed.) Three health outcomes were tracked for up to 10.5 years: cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke that did not result in death, all cardiovascular events including death, and any type of death. Resistance exercise reduced the risk of all three outcomes.

The researchers concluded: Even one time or less than one hour/week of RE, independent of AE, is associated with reduced risks of CVD and all-cause mortality. Body mass index mediates [facilitates] the association of RE with total CVD events.   

“Muscle is the power plant to burn calories,” Lee told Science Daily (November 13, 2018). “Building muscle helps move your joints and bones, but also there are metabolic benefits. I don’t think this is well appreciated. If you build muscle, even if you’re not aerobically active, you burn more energy because you have more muscle.” 

Muscles both consume and store blood sugar. Skeletal muscles are the body’s biggest consumer of blood sugar.

“Resistance training also helps prevent obesity and provide long-term benefits on various health outcomes,” Lee continued. Leanness and resistance training combine to promote wellness.

A Third Study Heralds Static Nature of Strength Training

New research presented at the 2018 American College of Cardiology Latin American Conference in Lima, Peru, found that while all physical activity is beneficial, static activities—such as strength training—were more strongly associated with reducing heart disease risks than dynamic activities like walking and cycling.

Researchers led by Maia P. Smith, PhD, MS, a statistical epidemiologist in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at St. George’s University in Grenada, analyzed cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, overweight, diabetes and high cholesterol, as a function of self-reported static and/or dynamic activity (strength training or walking/biking) in 4,086 American adults using data from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The researchers then adjusted for age, ethnicity, gender and smoking and stratified by age: 21 to 44 years old or over 45 years old.

In total, 36 percent of younger and 25 percent of older adults engaged in static activity, and 28 percent of younger and 21 percent of older adults engaged in dynamic activity. Researchers found engaging in either type of activity was associated with 30 to 70 percent lower rates of cardiovascular disease risk factors, but associations were strongest for static activity and in youth.

Smith said future research and data collection should use definitions of physical activity that separate static from dynamic activity to further investigate independent effects.

*  *  *

While Smith et al don’t offer a detailed explanation, Henry Bodkin writing in the November 16, 2018, UK Telegraph News Science offered the following:

“The research challenges commonly held assumption that so-called “cardiovascular” pursuits like running are of greatest benefit to the heart. However, it backs up previous studies which suggest that heavy static exercise gives the circulatory system a better workout because the oxygen expenditure is more intense.”

An article in the April 2015 Physiological Reviews addressed the subject of blood and oxygen delivery to contracting muscles:

“There can be vast increases in blood flow to contracting skeletal muscles during exercise in humans and other species. These increases in skeletal muscle blood flow are essential to meet the demands of the contracting skeletal muscle for oxygen, and for exercise to be prolonged. On a systemic level, the key determinant of these overall responses is the generation of a cardiac output as a result of the increases in heart rate and stroke volume that can both meet the demands for oxygen by the contracting muscles and perfusion pressure by other organs. In humans, these demands are also met by the diversion of blood flow away from less active skeletal muscle and other tissues so that the vast majority of cardiac output is directed toward the exercising skeletal muscles. These responses and adaptations are at their most impressive in elite highly trained endurance athletes.”

So, it does appear the static exercise--and dynamic exercise--do, indeed, challenge the circulatory system to deliver blood and oxygen to contracting muscles.

Professor Smith called on clinicians to counsel patients to do both static and dynamic exercise. “The important thing is to make sure they are engaging in physical activities,” she adds.

My Take

Henry Bodkin was "spot on" in observing that research is challenging the commonly held assumption that endurance exercise is best for heart health. It boggles the mind that data from the home of aerobic exercise is uncovering the benefits of strength training on heart health. We’ve come a long way from the “put down” of weight lifting in the landmark book Aerobics.

It is becoming clear that strength and endurance training march arm-in-arm in the cause of total fitness and health.

Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider must be smiling down on us from on high. Our dear friend Arnie Jensen, the doctor who brought me to the Cooper Clinic 30 years ago to demonstrate the value of strength training, must be leading them in a big “We told you so.”


Our book Great Expectation is dedicated to Dr. Arnie Jensen, who practiced what he preached and had the highest expectations for his patients and himself.

He continued to train—strength and aerobic—until a few weeks before his untimely death.

Photo by Justin Joseph

Professor Smith is correct that “physical activity” is important—and that combining strength and aerobic exercise works best.

December 1, 2018

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