Strength training may be just as good as aerobic activity for reducing cardiovascular risk.

Any type of movement that makes your heart work harder than usual — brisk walking, dancing, or cycling — will benefit your heart health. But many people don’t realize that targeted exercises to strengthen muscles throughout your body may also help stave off heart disease.

“In the past, strong muscles were considered beneficial mainly from a functional standpoint — that is, they make tasks such as carrying groceries and doing laundry easier,” says Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies the role of physical activity in disease prevention. Those perks are particularly important as people age.

Muscle vs. fat

Now, there’s more interest in looking at how a higher muscle mass may lower the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, says Dr. Lee. Muscle mass declines naturally with age, and most people replace lost muscle with fat. Muscle-building exercises can help counteract that trend.

Studies suggest that strength training may boost your metabolic rate (the rate at which your body converts energy stores into working energy) by up to 15%. You’ll burn more calories, even while you’re sitting or sleeping. One study found that healthy men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less of an age-related increase in abdominal fat (which is especially hard on the heart) compared with men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic activities. In addition, muscle tissue is more metabolically active, so it helps control blood sugar and lowers insulin resistance. That helps prevent type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease.

Getting stronger

Strength training can be done with resistance bands, small hand weights, or weight machines. If you don’t want to join a gym, considering buying a set of resistance bands, Dr. Lee suggests. They’re light and inexpensive, and you can do almost any kind of muscle-strengthening exercise with them. Those that resemble large rubber bands with loops or handles on each end are often easiest to use. Many brands follow the same progressive color scale, ranging from yellow (the easiest, least resistance), then red, green, blue, and black (the most difficult, highest resistance).

A well-rounded program works all major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. It’s best if you can take a class (perhaps at a local Y or senior center) to learn the different types of resistance band exercises. But you can start by trying the two exercises featured here. Be sure to warm up first by marching in place and swinging your arms for a few minutes. Use the band that gives the least resistance (the stretchiest one) and aim for a mid-range level of effort (say, about 5 or 6 on a scale of 10). Start with a single set of eight to 12 repetitions (reps) of each move, then gradually build up to two or three sets as you feel able. Rest for a minute or two between each set. Additional exercises and more detailed instructions are available in the Harvard Special Health Report Workout 

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