Jan 9, 2023 The Great Debate: Cardio vs. Strength Training

woman running and man lifting weights

Find out which one is best for your heart health.

Everyone knows that exercise is good for the heart. But what kind of exercise is most beneficial for optimum heart health—cardio or strength training? Anthony Altobelli III, MD, Clinical Chief of Cardiology, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) and RWJBarnabas Health (RWJBH) Medical Group, sheds some light on this decades-old debate.

Anthony Altobelli III, MD, FACC
Anthony Altobelli III, MD, FACC

When it comes to cardio vs. strength training for heart health, is one more beneficial than the other?

The scientific evidence is still building around which form of exercise is best to prevent chronic disease. Historically, aerobic (or cardio) exercise was always recommended for heart and lung health with little attention paid to strength (or resistance) training. What’s clear now, however, is that strength training is as important to heart health as aerobic exercise and that a combination of both yields the best heart outcomes with regard to blood pressure, body composition, fitness, strength and metabolism. In turn, beneficial change in a person’s physiology yields a lower risk of diabetes, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), heart attack and stroke.

What’s the best way to combine these exercises?

Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, a 2018 report from the Department of Health and Human Services, recommends that each week, adults aged 18 to 64 do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or an equivalent combination of both. Strength training should be performed at least twice a week on nonconsecutive days to allow a period of rest for the muscle groups being stressed.

How does age affect the type of exercise(s) a person should do?

As we age, safety becomes an issue. The aging adult should do both forms of exercise, but participation should take into account chronic medical conditions, such as musculoskeletal disorders, that may place the individual at risk for injury. For people at risk for falls or with balance issues, resistance exercises, such as chair squats, heel lifts, rowing, resistance bands, bicep curls and shoulder presses, may be effectively and safely performed. Research continues to support strength/resistance training for older individuals.

What advice do you have for the average person who wants to start an exercise regimen to improve their heart health?

Recommendations are based on age and whether the individual is new to an exercise program. First, choose exercise that you may find enjoyable. Second, set realistic expectations for how often and how long you’ll exercise. Third, choose exercises that you can safely perform. Fourth, consider partnering with others for motivation and socialization. Fifth, communicate with your physicians.

Whoever your heart beats for, our hearts beat for you. Learn about heart and vascular services at RWJBarnabas Health. To connect with a top cardiovascular specialist, call 888-724-7123.