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Cardiovascular diseases: How does strength training improve heart health?

Cardiovascular diseases: How does strength training improve heart health?

arious risk factors contribute to diseases of the cardiovascular system. These include high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels and overweight. The usual suspects of the affluent modern society.

While illnesses of the cardiovascular system are on the rise, strength training gains increasingly more recognition as an effective preventive measure and a proven therapy at the same time. Because strength training increases lean muscle mass, which has to be supported with blood.

This new muscle mass also comes with more capillaries, which in sum lead to more blood volume and more work for the heart, which it gladly takes on by becoming stronger itself. This results in less pressure on your arteries, which helps reduce the chances of heart-related diseases. Furthermore, the skeletal muscles put greater stimulus on the cardiovascular system than endurance training.

We spoke about heart health to Anna Maria Schürner, a leading physician for cardiac anesthesia and intensive care medicine. Anna Maria came to her AURUM training after her night shift and three hours of sleep. She doesn't like to miss her training sessions. The heart doctor has been doing strength training since the age of 15. A true role model!

AURUM: We often hear the term "cardiovascular diseases". Could you explain what are the symptoms or which known diseases fall into this category?

Anna Maria Schürner: Cardiovascular diseases are diseases that affect and damage the heart and the vascular system. Often there are deposits of fats and blood clots in the large vessels, such as the aorta, but also in the smaller vessels, such as coronary arteries and leg vessels, which, as they progress, can lead to circulatory disorders, e.g. in the legs, which are then called peripheral arterial occlusive disease, or, even more dangerously, to circulatory disorders of the heart with heart attack and heart failure as the worst case scenarios.

The “cardio” in “cardiovascular” stands for the heart. How important is the training of the heart muscle for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases? Or, to put it another way, is the lack of training of the heart muscle also a trigger for cardiovascular diseases?

It is not the training of the heart muscle per se that leads to the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. By doing sports, by stimulating our heart, we promote the blood circulation of the whole body. By exercising our muscles, we promote muscle growth and fat loss, which can reduce the overall risk factors or predisposing conditions for cardiovascular diseases.

What exactly does it actually mean when someone says “the risk of cardiovascular disease decreases”? How can one keep the risk for heart related diseases low?

The reasons for cardiovascular diseases are many and varied, but in our modern society it is often the typical "diseases of the modern civilization" that increase the risk. Obesity, elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, alcohol and smoking are the most common factors, but also the ones that can be influenced most easily by lifestyle changes. Of course, it would be best to lead a healthy lifestyle from the very beginning, to do sports, to pay attention to a balanced diet and to refrain from smoking in order to prevent the risk factors arising in the first place. But it is never too late to start, because as many studies have already shown, weight reduction, fat loss and muscle building can reduce high blood pressure and diabetes type II can even be controlled without medication, which are the most important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.

Imagine you could pass a law that would oblige everyone to behave in a way that would put you out of work :) What would the prescribed behavior look like?

Hahaha, good question, I don't think I would ever become unemployed, because, as much and as easy it is to do good for our health and fitness nowadays, we can't control many genetic diseases including cardiovascular diseases, at least not yet. But if I had to pass a law, I would give people a fixed daily schedule, with a healthy protein and fiber-rich breakfast after a short strength training, intermittent fasting throughout the day, and a balanced dinner with little meat. Turning off the TV in between, getting off the sofa, out of the city and walking, hiking, swimming and enjoying nature and fresh air, that alone gives a lot of motivation and strength. And who doesn't like the feeling of falling into bed exhausted after a good workout or a long hike and feeling that the day was successful.

Can you explain why High Intensity Interval training has received so much praise in recent years and why medium intensity endurance training has been knocked off the throne when it comes to cardiovascular health?

Apart from the fact that our modern society demands a certain amount of speed and time and we hardly find the time for ourselves and for our health, High Intensity Interval Training presents a great option because of the short and intensive training with a relatively long relaxation phase in between. Furthermore, we now know that especially muscles can be built up much better when they are exposed to a strong stimulus that engages all muscle fibers of a musculature structure compared to a long low intensity training that activates only the muscles needed. We also know that the glucose uptake into the cells is up-regulated by stress and muscle build-up, thus reducing diabetes as one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.

Strength training also promotes heart function, which many people do not want to believe. What exactly changes, in terms of the heart, when you do a HIT training such as the one offered by AURUM?

Remember that the cardiovascular system is always active. If you just stand and talk to someone: your heart is beating, blood is flowing, your lungs are breathing oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out around the clock. So, in a way you always do "cardio" when you do something. You can only make your cardiovascular system more efficient by doing mechanical muscle work. Every muscular effort simultaneously puts more strain on the cardiovascular system. The stronger the muscular stimulus, the greater the engagement of the cardiovascular system. And every component of the metabolism is directly related to the cardiovascular system. Only during low intensity physical activities such as light jogging, during which the mitochondria perform their work at a submaximal pace, is only one part of the metabolism - the aerobic system - activated. High intensity strength training is actually the best way to train the cardiovascular system because, unlike aerobic training, it involves all the components of the metabolism and stimulates them to function more efficiently.

Cardiovascular diseases are partly inherited, partly they are influenced by the behavior and intake of various foods and medications. Can heart and its performance be optimized by epigenetics (through training, nutrition, lifestyle)?

Absolutely! As I mentioned earlier, the causes of cardiovascular diseases are manifold, but certainly there are many risk factors that can be managed. Even with a genetic predisposition, the progression of the disease can be controlled and slowed down to a certain extent through sport, the right diet and healthy lifestyle choices. 

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