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More Intense Exercise is Good for the Heart - 2002-10-22

Health experts recommend that adults reduce their risk of heart disease by performing moderate exercise for half an hour every day. But a new study says more intense exercise is even better for a healthy heart, especially if combined with weight lifting.

It is well documented that exercise helps reduce the risk of heart disease. Many studies have shown that as exercise time increases, the risk of heart disease decreases.

But questions remain about exercise intensity. Is it better for your heart if you sweat and are more out of breath? The answer is yes, according to Harvard University researchers led by physician Mihaela Tanasescu. "The current recommendations are for 30 minutes or more of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking on most, preferably all days of the week," said Mihaela Tanasescu. "But we found that there may be an additional benefit from more intense physical activity."

The Harvard team tracked more than 44,000 middle-aged and older men for 12 years. Based on the men's medical records and answers to questionnaires, the researchers found that running was better for heart health than brisk walking. Men who ran at least half an hour per week had a 42 percent lower risk of heart disease than men who did not run, while brisk walking lowered it only 18 percent. Dr. Tanasescu says that even with walking, speed mattered, with the least heart disease risk among those who walked the fastest. "People who don't exercise should start moving," she said. "Even moderate amounts of walking are beneficial. However, more intense activities are probably going to confer an additional benefit."

The study, which appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also helps answer a question about the value of weight lifting for the heart. Researchers have debated this issue because weight lifting does not give the heart and lungs the same kind of workout that aerobic activity such as running does.

But the Harvard team found that men who lifted weights 30 or more minutes per week had a 23 percent lower risk of heart disease than men who avoided weights. "People have believed that lifting weights is beneficial to the heart, but this is the first piece of evidence to support this belief," she said.

The researchers say weight lifting helps in several ways. It reduces the unhealthy form of cholesterol and boosts the good kind, increases muscle and decreases body fat, and helps the body process sugar - all factors leading to a healthier heart.

The scientists say that adding weight training to higher intensity aerobic exercise is among the most effective strategies to reduce the risk of heart disease. While the study focused on men, the researchers say the benefits are just as great in women.