It's an age-old exercise debate: Is cardio or strength training better for you? It's commonly disputed in terms of weight loss or fat loss, but if you're at risk of developing heart disease, you may be wondering if one form of exercise trumps the other when it comes to heart health.
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First things first: Physical activity in any form is good for your heart. According to the American Heart Association, being sedentary is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
But regular exercise is associated with positive changes in the heart's structure and function and can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, lower "bad" cholesterol, increase "good" cholesterol and help your body use insulin more efficiently. It also makes it easier to get through everyday activities without feeling winded.
Exercise also helps you achieve a healthy weight, which is important if you're concerned about your ticker. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, being overweight can increase your risk of high blood pressure or diabetes, which can contribute to heart disease and ultimately heart failure. Plus, extra weight can put extra stress on your heart, making it more difficult for it to do its job.
"Maintaining a healthy weight is part of the equation to help with lots of those different risk factors," Andrew M. Freeman, MD, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness with National Jewish Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Here, we explore the benefits of each type of exercise on your heart and nail down which one prevails in the strength training vs. cardio for heart health debate.
Cardio for Heart Health
In a way, the effects of cardio training on the heart are obvious: You feel your heart rate increase when you jog down the block, climb up a flight of stairs or exert yourself in some other way. It comes as no surprise, then, that cardio plays an important role in optimizing heart heath. "Cardio is critical," Dr. Freeman says.
When you do cardio — defined as any activity that increases heart rate and respiration while using large muscle groups repetitively and rhythmically — you're supporting your heart, lungs and circulatory system.
Tamanna Singh, MD, a clinical cardiologist and co-director of the Sports Cardiology Center at Cleveland Clinic, tells LIVESTRONG.com that cardio offers specific benefits for the heart, including the ability to:
- Reduce blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Improve blood sugar control
- Help with weight management
Other heart-healthy benefits of cardio include:
Lowers Resting Heart Rate
Dr. Singh notes that regular cardio exercise also lowers your resting heart rate. Physical activity also improves circulation, which helps the body deliver oxygen to the body more efficiently, she says.
"That means the heart muscle does not have to work as hard to supply blood to all of the vital tissues and organs," Dr. Singh says.
Aids Circulatory and Respiratory Systems
One way researchers measure the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to deliver oxygen to the body's skeletal muscles is through cardiorespiratory fitness.
An August 2020 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research assigned adults with overweight to a specific exercise program for 12 weeks and found those in the high-intensity interval training group (a type of cardio-focused exercise) had better cardiorespiratory fitness than groups who performed other types of exercise. They concluded that high-intensity interval training was the best type of exercise to improve the circulatory and respiratory systems.
Helps Reduce Stress
Stress from relationship woes to work deadlines, can negatively affect your heart. A September 2021 study published in Hypertension found people with high levels of stress hormones were at increased risk of experiencing high blood pressure and cardiovascular events, such as stroke or heart attack.
Cardio exercise is a great stress reducer. According to Harvard Health Publishing, it can reduce stress hormones while promoting feel-good endorphins, which could leave you feeling more relaxed and in a better mood once you wrap up your workout.
Strength Training for Heart Health
Strength training, on the other hand, may not offer as many obvious heart benefits, but they're there. And this form of exercise is always a good idea — it helps build strong bones, aids in weight management and improves symptoms associated with chronic conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Strength training also can benefit your heart in specific ways. Dr. Singh says many of the benefits you'll find from cardio training apply to strength training as well, including:
- Improved control of cholesterol
- Better blood sugar management
- Help with weight management
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced risk of health issues like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease
And you don't need to necessarily lift super heavy to get them, Dr. Singh says. "Lighter weights and more reps will typically fall within the aerobic category," she says.
Some additional benefits of strength training for heart health include:
Increases Calorie Burn at Rest
Dr. Freeman says the main benefit of strength training for heart health is that it can increase the number of calories you burn at rest. And more calories burned during the day contributes to weight management, which translates to better heart health.
"If you have more muscle mass and you're in better condition, your basal metabolic rate — the calories you burn just sitting around — is higher," Dr. Freeman says. "Your metabolism is basically revved up by having more muscle mass."
Reduces Fat Around the Heart
Lifting weights also appears to help reduce the amount of fat surrounding the heart. A small July 2019 study published in JAMA Cardiology found that participants who completed three, 45-minute strength-training sessions a week for 12 weeks reduced a specific type of heart fat called pericardial adipose tissue by 31 percent.
Those who did aerobic exercise for the same amount of time only saw an 11 percent reduction. The researchers also noted that both types of exercise reduced another type of heart fat, called epicardial adipose tissue.
Improves Blood Pressure
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study mentioned above also found the group that participated in 12 weeks of strength training had a better vascular profile — which essentially refers to the blood flow in your heart and arteries and impacts blood pressure — compared to groups who performed other types of exercise.
A healthy blood pressure is important, since high blood pressure can lead to heart attack and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
So what wins out in the strength training vs. cardio debate? At the end of the day, the two types of exercise work best together, and you should incorporate both into your exercise routine to maximize heart health.
"One form of exercise does not significantly offer better cardiac benefits versus the other," Dr. Singh says. "Your heart does not care what you do, nor can it tell what type of exercise you are doing."
Here are four ways to maximize heart health with your fitness routine.
1. Combine Cardio and Strength Training
The point is: All exercise is good for the heart, and marrying the two forms of exercise leads to the best possible outcomes.
In fact, a January 2019 study published in PLoS One found that people at risk of cardiovascular disease who did a combination of cardio and strength training for eight weeks saw greater cardiovascular benefits (including lower blood pressure and improved cardiorespiratory fitness and lean body mass) compared to those who did aerobic or resistance training alone.
2. Clock Enough Time
The AHA recommends strength training at least twice a week, plus doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise each week. When it comes to cardio, "aim to be breathless," Dr. Freeman says. So if you're walking or running with a friend, it should be difficult to keep a conversation going.
3. Pick an Activity You Enjoy
Ultimately, the best exercise is the one you'll stick with and incorporate into your routine. "At the end of the day, do something that you enjoy — that you can be consistent with — because consistency in all forms of exercise will yield the greatest physical, mental and cardiac benefits," Dr. Singh says.
If the gym or treadmill isn't for you, try walking, swimming or biking for cardio and try at-home streaming workouts or body-weight exercises to add in strength training when you can, Dr. Freeman says.
"While the greatest cardiovascular benefits come from a combination of cardio and strength training, any intentional movement will always leave you feeling better, stronger and your heart healthier," Dr. Singh says.
4. Get Other Lifestyle Habits in Check
One last thing to remember: Exercise alone isn't going to keep your heart healthy. "All the strength training in the world, all the cardio in the world won't cancel out a bad diet," Dr. Freeman says, adding that sleep, social connection and stress management play a critical role in keeping your heart healthy, too. Take care of your heart, and your heart will take care of you.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Weight: A Silent Heart Risk"
- The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: "The Effect of 12 Weeks of Different Exercise Training Modalities or Nutritional Guidance on Cardiometabolic Risk Factors, Vascular Parameters, and Physical Fitness in Overweight Adults: Cardiometabolic High-Intensity Interval Training-Resistance Training Randomized Controlled Study"
- The Mayo Clinic: "Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier"
- JAMA Cardiology: "Effect of Aerobic and Resistance Exercise on Cardiac Adipose Tissues"
- American Heart Association: "The Facts About High Blood Pressure"
- PLoS One: "Comparative effectiveness of aerobic, resistance, and combined training on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A randomized controlled trial"
- The American Heart Association: "How much physical activity do you need?"
- Hypertension: "Urinary Stress Hormones, Hypertension, and Cardiovascular Events: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Benefits of Physical Activity"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Exercising to Relax"
- Circulation: "Exercise-Related Acute Cardiovascular Events and Potential Deleterious Adaptations Following Long-Term Exercise Training: Placing the Risks Into Perspective–An Update: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association"