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Can strength training prevent a heart attack or stroke?

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LA Post: Can strength training prevent a heart attack or stroke?
April 03, 2024
Nahal Garakani - LA Post

Pumping iron delivers way more than just muscle. Groundbreaking research reveals strength training packs a potent punch against two of humanity's biggest health villains - heart disease and stroke. A game-changing study from Iowa State University, involving over 12,000 adults, uncovered that a mere 60 minutes per week of resistance training can slash your risk of a potentially fatal cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke by a staggering 40 to 70 percent.

This finding is merely the tip of the iceberg regarding the potential life-preserving perks unlocked by working some iron into your routine. In addition to its seismic impact on cardiovascular wellness, consistent resistance work has been linked to lower cancer risk, diminished arthritis and back pain, improved blood sugar regulation, and stronger, denser bones - a key player in preventing the crippling effects of osteoporosis that impact 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men over 50 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet despite these crystal clear upsides, all sorts of misconceptions about resistance training persist, turning many people off from tapping into its bonafide benefits. A common myth is that such training is only for the young guns and already super fit or that it necessitates pricey gym memberships and hired muscle instructors. In reality, anyone of any age or fitness level can undertake appropriate strength work and be crushed in the comfort of one's own crib with inexpensive gear like resistance bands, free weights, and a basic exercise mat.

Another widespread myth is that resistance training will inevitably lead to an overly jacked, masculine-looking physique - a fear that seems to be especially prevalent among women. However, this anxiety is largely groundless, as major muscle growth is primarily fueled by the male hormone testosterone, of which females have comparatively minuscule levels coursing through their veins. A balanced diet and intelligently designed program can build a lean, toned, and functional-looking body while actively torching excess body fat.

The perceived risk of injury is also frequently used as an excuse to avoid resistance training altogether. But when practiced with proper form, gradual progressions, and adequate R&R between sessions, this mode can actually help prevent injuries by reinforcing bones, connective tissues, and the musculoskeletal system's overall integrity—ultimately enhancing flexibility, balance, and overall physical robustness.  

One of resistance exercise's biggest strengths is its ability to build and maintain muscle mass - something that becomes absolutely crucial as we get up there in years. After we crack into our 40s, an inevitable decline in muscle and bone density known as sarcopenia starts to take hold, that downward slide accelerating rapidly once we've busted past 65 years old. Therefore, strategically programmed strength work is a must-have for aging in a graceful and high-functioning fashion late into life.

Contrary to claims of it being overly complex or a major time suck, the latest evidence suggests that allotting as little as 1-2 hours per week to purposeful resistance training can pay massive dividends. The CDC's "Growing Stronger" blueprint aimed at the older demographics recommends 2-3 weekly strength sessions built around gradually ramping up the intensity and overload over time.     

For those who revel in getting their swole on out in nature, "boot camp" style workouts that leverage environmental obstacles like fallen trees and boulders can inject some playful variety into one's resistance routine. And the internet has opened the floodgates to a vast universe of video tutorials from qualified professionals, enabling individuals to construct effectively minimalist yet savage routines from the comfort of their own homes. 

While habitual cardio activities like running, cycling, and hiking undoubtedly remain important pieces of any well-rounded fitness puzzle, resistance training brings a unique set of physiological perks to the table that simple aerobic work alone just can't provide. A comprehensive 2021 analysis synthesizing data from 58 different studies found strength training to be particularly effective at reducing overall body fat percentage, hazardous visceral fat around vital organs, and total fat mass among healthy adults - all pivotal factors impacting one's risk for cardiovascular disease and its ugly stepchildren.

Muscle, being more metabolically "expensive" than fat, keeps the body's calorie-burning furnace stoked during and long after each resistance training session. For those keen to efficiently merge cardio and strength elements, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) protocols masterfully blend both into condensed, time-efficient sessions. At the end of the day, though, any intelligently designed regimen involving resistance overload, aerobic hustle, and nutritious dietary habits can catalyze lasting positive body recomposition.

While excessive soreness and strain should certainly be avoided, a certain degree of difficult, uncomfortable effort is generally required to progressively overload the body's various systems and provoke positive adaptations. The trite "no pain, no gain" mentality is likely best left in the past in favor of a more sustainable approach prioritizing gradual progressive overload, technical mastery, and holistic wellness.

The mounting evidence casting strength training as an elite, uniquely powerful force for defending against cardiovascular calamity and premature mortality should inspire people from all walks of life to incorporate this modality thoughtfully. By systematically dispelling pervasive myths and acknowledging resistance exercise's accessibility and multi-faceted upside, we can pave the path for improved heart health, enhanced physical vigor, and longer, higher-quality living for all.

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