A Weighty Issue for Exercise Buffs
Dumbbells Are Smart
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
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
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."