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A Weighty Issue for Exercise Buffs

Dumbbells Are Smart
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

March 19, 2001 -- Weight training is no longer the exclusive domain of the flex and pecs crew at the gym. Today, many people seeking a well-rounded workout include some form of resistance training. But until recently, weightlifting was the Rodney Dangerfield of exercise -- it never got any respect.


That view is changing as evidence mounts that weights not only tone and build the muscles you can see, but may help another very important muscle you can't see: Your heart.


"We have done studies and found that weight training is indeed safe and also probably beneficial" to the heart, says Gerald Fletcher, MD, a cardiologist with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and a spokesman for the American Heart Association (AHA).


The AHA has come a long way in its position on resistance training. While doctors and exercise physiologists for years have routinely supported the notion of heart benefits from aerobic exercise, they pretty much have dismissed the notion of benefits from weightlifting. In fact, the consensus among cardiologists a decade ago was that hefting free weight was downright dangerous for people with cardiovascular problems because it stressed the heart and depleted it of oxygen.


The fact that studies searching for other evidence of weightlifting's advantages often were contradictory did not help resolve the issue. For example, for every one that showed resistance training reduced LDL (low density lipoproteins, the "bad" cholesterol) and increased HDL (high density lipoproteins, the "good" cholesterol), another followed saying it didn't.


Doctors now recognize that weight training contains an aerobic component. But the real merits of resistance training may not be found in that aspect or in blood levels, but rather in overall changes in the body. This year, the AHA issued a position paper that credited strength training for reducing resting blood pressure.


Fletcher still cautions people with high blood pressure to be careful when doing arm exercises, but endorses weightlifting as a part of most fitness plans. "We are really more liberally suggesting supplementing the aerobic experience with resistance exercise," he says. "For healthy people it is something they need, because it is beneficial as well as aerobic."


Wayne Westcott, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Boston, Mass., couldn't agree more. Westcott has spent the better part of 30 years preaching the virtues of weight training for everyone -- young and old, healthy and sick.


"The cardiovascular system doesn't act independently of the muscular system," says Westcott, author of 16 books on strength training and fitness. "Every muscle you have acts as an auxiliary heart."


Having strong muscles is especially important for people with heart problems. Many cardiac patients, Westcott says, stress their hearts doing simple, everyday activities like walking up stairs, painting a wall, or trying to open a stuck window. "But strong muscles [help] accomplish these tasks easily," he says. "The better the condition of your muscles, the more they can help your heart."

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