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Weight Training for Heart Disease

A No-No No More: Weight Training Aids Ailing Hearts
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WebMD Health News

July 16, 2007 -- It's no longer a no-no. Moderate weight training offers big benefits to people with heart disease, the American Heart Association says.

In 2000, the AHA approved weight training for people with several kinds of heart disease. Now that cautious permission has become a ringing endorsement.

"Just as we once learned that people with heart disease benefited from aerobic exercise, we are now learning that guided, moderate weight training also has significant benefits," says Mark Williams, PhD, of Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb.

Williams and colleagues rewrote the AHA's new weight training advice. Those recommendations appear in the July 31 issue of the AHA journal Circulation.

Weight training -- or "resistance training," as researchers like to call it -- is no substitute for aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise such as walking, running, and biking is still the most important way to stay fit. But to get the most out of aerobic exercise, one should add weight training.

The benefits of weight training include:

  • Increased muscle strength
  • Increased bone density
  • Increased lean muscle mass -- and, if weight is kept constant, loss of fat
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Increased endurance (to a somewhat lesser extent than with aerobic exercise)

"Resistance training not only enhances the benefits of aerobic fitness, but it appears to provide the added benefit of increased functional capacity and independence," Williams says. "It helps people better perform tasks of daily living -- like lifting sacks of groceries."

Who Should Not Lift Weights

Some heart patients should not lift weights. Weight training is not recommended if you have:

  • Unstable coronary heart disease such as those with angina
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Severe pulmonary hypertension
  • Severe, symptomatic aortic stenosis
  • Acute infection of the heart or tissues surrounding the heart
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure (more than 180/110 mmHg)
  • Aortic dissection
  • Marfan syndrome

People with other heart conditions or risk factors for heart disease should discuss weight training with their doctors before starting.

How to Start Weight Training

The AHA's "initial prescription for resistance training" includes these tips:

  • Lift weights in a rhythmic manner at moderate to slow controlled speed.
  • Lift through a full range of motion.
  • Do not hold your breath and strain. Instead, exhale during the contraction (exertion) phase of the lift and inhale during the relaxation phase.
  • Alternate between upper-body and lower-body lifts.
  • Healthy people starting weight training should start with 8 to 12 repetitions per set. Older or frailer individuals should use much lighter weights, and do 10-15 repetitions per set.
  • Start with a single set, two days a week.
  • Important exercises to include: chest press, shoulder press, triceps extension, biceps curl, pull-down, lower-back extension, abdominal crunch/curl-up, leg press, leg curl, and calf raise.

There is a wide variety of equipment available. However, most people -- especially beginners -- benefit most from the circuit-training machines found in most gyms. It also helps to have an experienced trainer to get you started. And don't forget to check with your doctor to establish the exercise level that's right for you.

  • What type of exercise has your doctor OK’d for you? Are you exercising regularly? Talk with others on WebMD's Heart Disease Support Group message board.

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