Sept. 19, 2001 -- After heart attack or bypass surgery, the fear of more heart problems often plunges men into depression. But a new study shows that lifting a few light weights on a regular basis actually can lift a guy's spirits, plus it can reduce the risk of another bad heart episode.
The report was scheduled for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation in Minneapolis on Sept. 13. The meeting was canceled, however, due to the tragedies last week.
The study started with 46 men, all in their mid-50s with heart disease and depression, and assigned them to one of three groups. Over a three-year period, 20 trained with weights and aerobic exercise three times a week; 16 did aerobic exercise only; and 10 did not exercise.
The results: "Men who did weight training plus aerobic exercise were less depressed, less anxious, and felt better about themselves," writes Helene Santa-Clara, PhD, a researcher at Lisbon Technical University in Portugal.
It all makes perfect sense, says Helene Glassberg, MD, director of preventive cardiology and lipid center at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. She was not involved with the study but commented on it for WebMD.
"We know that aerobic exercise prevents heart disease," Glassberg says. "Many studies have shown that people who participate in cardiac rehab have better mood, better sense of well-being, better sense of control over their own health.
"This is the first time that there's been some good, strong evidence that weight training helps reduce risk, too," she says.
And every bit of this workout combo makes another heart attack less likely, Glassberg says.
"This is the first study that's suggested the importance of weight training -- the combination of weight training and cardiovascular exercise," she tells WebMD. Until now, researchers didn't realize how much this type of combined exercise can help.
Why weight training? It likely pumps up those feel-good hormones, says Glassberg. "Perhaps it's the enhanced endorphin release that give people a sense of well-being, perhaps it's testosterone release that makes people feel more aggressive, stronger."
There's a biological mechanism at work, one that researchers are struggling to understand, she tells WebMD.
"We know that the type-A personality -- high-stress people -- have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease," she says. Situational stress seems to increase stickiness of platelets, creating more blood clotting and inflammation of arteries, which doctors have known can contribute to the risk of having a heart attack or heart disease. "Perhaps all of this comes into play more than we ever realized," she says.
The "stickier platelet" theory is fairly new, says Glassberg. Studies conducted at Duke University School of Medicine have shown that the antidepressant Zoloft helps prevent platelets from sticking together -- or clotting -- which, in turn, lowers risk of heart attack or stroke.
"Whether or not we have defined what's happening biologically, there clearly is something at work," she tells WebMD.
Weight training has traditionally been underemphasized in cardiac rehab programs. Yet the elderly especially can reap great rewards from even a little weight pumping -- if they'll be willing to do it.
"I think people are afraid to weight train, especially the elderly," Glassberg says, noting that this fear is misplaced. "The elderly actually have more to gain than younger people. Older folks lose more muscle mass as each year goes by."
Retaining and building muscle mass is very important for older women, not just for cardiovascular reasons but for overall health and bone strength. "So it shouldn't be something we avoid," she says.
People with hypertension also tend to be unnecessarily fearful of weights, says Glassberg. "They just need to use light weights. In fact, studies have shown that you can actually lower your blood pressure better with light weight training."
She makes these recommendations:
- Get your doctor's OK to try weight lifting.
- Do it under the supervision of an exercise physiologist, if possible.
- Use only two- to five-pound free weights. Build up the number of repetitions slowly.
Too many people become "cardiac cripples" after their heart attack or bypass surgery, Glassberg continues. Ironically, fear of another heart attack is at the root of it.
"We know we can reduce that by a significant amount by having them participate in an exercise program. Adding weights adds to the enjoyment of it, their sense of control, sense of their own strength and own fitness."
"It's important they know that physical activity can help them feel less depressed and less anxious and can get them safely back to work, back to their old lifestyles."