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continued...

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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.

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"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."

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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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Adding resistance to your exercise program, Westcott says, makes the heart pump faster. That forces the left ventricle -- the part of the heart that pumps blood to most of your body -- to worker harder and become stronger. Just like other muscles, the heart responds to hard work by growing thicker, stronger walls. "You get a larger left ventricle that pumps more blood with each beat, and you get a stronger pump and you can have a lower resting heart rate," he says.

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If a healthier heart isn't enough reward, there are some other benefits that might motivate you to start pumping iron. For instance, would you like to shed a few pounds? An Ohio University study on the effects of resistance training on lipoprotein concentrations that appeared in last year's first quarterly issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported no change in those blood parameters. But the study did note changes in the subjects' bodies. "The training program resulted in significant alterations in body composition (decreased in percent of body fat) and fiber composition," the authors wrote.

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That makes sense, says Westcott, who has conducted his own studies on resistance training and weight loss. Here' s why: In a 30-minute session of weight training, most people burn 260 calories, Westcott says. But resistance training gets the body so revved up that two hours after you've grunted the last repetition, your body is still burning calories at a supercharged rate. "You don't come back to a normal metabolic rate for the next two hours," Westcott says.

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