What's Better for Heart Health: Cardio or Strength Training? Here's What Research Says

Your heart is an MVP muscle, after all!

Thanks to decades of research that dove into the best exercise for weight loss, we now know that both strength training AND cardio are crucial pieces of the weight loss (or maintenance) pie. Gone are the days when fitness buffs would pedal away for hours on end on the elliptical. Strength training not only keeps us strong and able to tackle tasks like lifting heavy bags of groceries to climbing several flights of stairs, but it also stokes us up with muscle cells that burn far more calories than fat cells. (Up to three times more, according to many estimates!)

But the scientific evidence is still building around which form of exercise is best for preventing chronic diseases. Researchers are especially keen on diving into how exercise relates to cardiovascular disease, since it's the #1 killer for both men and women in the U.S. One person dies from a heart disease-related illness or issue every 36 seconds, the CDC says.

So for your heart, should you HIIT (high-intensity interval training) it hard or lift heavy?

A recent study in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research tracked overweight adults for 12 weeks, randomly assigning each person to one of four groups:

  • HIIT
  • Resistance training
  • A mix of resistance training and HIIT
  • Nutrition guidance (and no exercise changes)

At the beginning of the study, the scientists took note of each individual's body composition, heart health details (like cholesterol, fasting blood sugar and blood pressure) as well as measures of fitness (cardiorespiratory fitness and handgrip strength).

After the three-month study was complete, they measured the participants again and found that you can't make a wrong choice—as long as you're moving your body. All of the exercise groups showed a significant improvement over the group that only was given nutrition guidance:

  • 12 weeks of HIIT = better cardiorespiratory fitness, which means the circulatory and respiratory systems are better at delivering oxygen to skeletal muscles.
  • 12 weeks of strength = better vascular profile, as determined by increased artery flow-mediated dilation (or how much an artery expands when blood flows within it). This factor impacts blood pressure.

More research is still needed to confirm this over an extended period of time and with "normal" weight populations, too. But the moral of the story, according to experts from the American Council on Exercise (ACE)? Both HIIT and strength training can improve heart health. Ideally, a mix of both will deliver tip-top ticker benefits, as your heart would pump stronger, easier and better and deliver all of your muscles the O2 they need to perform at their peak.

Of course, what you eat is a vital piece of the pie, too; the best heart health action plan is a multi-pronged approach, as proven by this list of 7 things that could make you more likely to get heart disease. Fuel wisely with these best foods for heart health, stop smoking (or never start) and score the recommended amount of cardio and strength exercise each week and you'll be well on your way to a long and heart-healthy life.

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