While most of us know that exercise improves our health, we don’t always understand how or why. However, of the many exercise benefits and reasons to include exercise in our daily routines, there is one area which stands out above all others: heart health.
In fact, with February being American Heart Month, there is no better time than now to discover just what exercise does for the heart—or how dangerous a sedentary lifestyle is.
And, just to help you better understand these things, here is what you need to know about the benefits of regular exercise, how to easily incorporate heart-friendly exercise into your daily routine – including for the whole family – and the dangers of too little exercise on your cardiovascular health.
What Exercise Does for Your Heart
While the idea of exercise may have you moaning and looking for excuses to skip out, understanding how it benefits the cardiovascular system may help improve your motivation. For instance, your heart is a muscle, and just like other muscles in your body, it becomes stronger when you stress it through exercise.
While there is more to it than this, let us also first understand that according to the American Heart Association (AHA), cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for more men and women in the United States than any other disease. This is something which studies have shown can be reversed through the introduction of even minimal levels of aerobic exercise, which can be as simple as walking or even getting up and stretching more often, so long as it elevates your heart rate through movement. (1)
This occurs because when you increase the cardiopulmonary demand on your heart, it adapts by strengthening some key functions to keep up with the demand, which includes the strengthening and increased volume of the left ventricle and improved handling of calcium. This in turn leads to better cardiac performance.
Altogether, this means a lower risk of not just cardiovascular disease, but also type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some types of cancers. And, this is in addition to other exercise benefits, such as more energy, improved mental outlook, better brain function, leaner, stronger muscles and the maintaining of bone density. (4)
There is also good news for those who don’t want to run marathons or join in on strength competitions to get their exercise: the AHA recommends just 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise along with less time sitting. This can be as easy as getting up for a few 10-minute walks per day or altering your habits to include walking rather than taking the bus, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, and other simple, low-impact ways to add movement to your day.
And yes, while more vigorous aerobic exercise is fine and possibly even encouraged, the idea is that ANY exercise – no matter how moderate – can ultimately help lower your risk of cardiovascular and other diseases. (5)
The Danger of a Sedentary Lifestyle
Studies show that when compared to our ancestors and even our grandparents, we are now less active than ever.
For instance, in 1970, 2-in-10 American workers held desk jobs with limited activity, whereas 3-in-10 held jobs which required high levels of physical activity. However, by the year 2000, more than 4-in-10 Americans held jobs which required little activity, while only 2-in-10 held highly active jobs.
Mostly this is due to our ever-increasing screen time as more of our work becomes computer oriented, as well as job automation which is reducing the number of manual labor jobs. And, this is in addition to our increased dependency on motorized transportation, more automatic conveniences (think garage door openers, etc.), and other electronic devices which remove the brunt of our physical output.
Unfortunately, while this is great from the standpoint of efficiency and ease of modern living, the inactivity also wreaks havoc on our cardiovascular health.
For instance, recent studies show that prolonged inactivity has a distinct connection between increased BMI, higher blood triglyceride levels, and increased insulin resistance. However, studies also show that breaks in sedentary time, such as getting up periodically for short walks, has a positive effect on BMI management, heart health and insulin resistance. (6)
Exercises Which Benefit the Heart
Of course, the best way to ensure not only a low risk of cardiovascular and other diseases, but improved sense of well-being, better inflammation response, slower aging, improved mental function and many other benefits, is to start a regular exercise routine. However, by saying “routine,” we are not saying “hardcore running or workout routine,” but rather, the type of exercise you and your family are comfortable with. (7)
For instance, some excellent, low-impact exercises which can be easily done with minimal equipment or investment can include:
- Walking, which is one of the best exercises there are due to its low impact and how simple it is to enjoy. Schedule a lunchtime stroll, walk rather than taking the bus, or get together with the whole family for an evening walk around the park for an easy, fun and relaxing way to improve everyone’s heart health.
- Swimming, which doesn’t have to mean doing prolonged laps, but can also mean water aerobics, treading water, bicycling or jogging in place (use the shallow end) for around 20-30 minutes. Even jumping in the pool for a splash with the kids works great, since all you are looking for is around 20-30 minutes of medium-intensity aerobic movement per day.
- Join a class, such as taking yoga or aerobics. This is also a good way to stay motivated, as there is often not only a social aspect to look forward to with exercise classes, but you will likely also want to get your money’s worth!
- Get a dog, which not only means regular walks to keep both of you healthy, but there are also benefits to the type of unconditional love and companionship a dog (or other pets) can offer.
- Dance, which can be such things as taking up ballroom dancing, going out to bounce to a favorite musical group, or just putting the music on and boogying to your heart’s content (pun intended).
- Ride a bike, which doesn’t have to mean funny clothing and expensive equipment. Any old clunker will do, and riding is another exercise which is great for the whole family to enjoy together.
However, for those who would like to intensify things and invest a little more time and energy into their exercise, they can also try:
- Playing amateur sports. Most cities and larger towns have softball leagues, basketball leagues, and even hockey or flag football leagues. For a small investment, this can be one of the most stimulating and exiting ways to incorporate exercise into your week.
- Running, which is something you can do at any level, from a casual jog around the block in sweats to full-on ultra-marathon challenges. However, few of us are likely to find ultra-running to be in our comfort zones, and there is also evidence that while most exercise is excellent for your health, extreme aerobic exercise for prolonged periods (think years of running or similar exercise for 2 or more hours per day) may actually increase the risk of heart attack or stroke rather than reduce it. This likely has to do with the consistent evidence that extreme exercise can result in atrial fibrillation, which is a rhythm disturbance of the heart. No, this doesn’t mean that taking on the challenge of a 30-plus mile run is something you should avoid, just keep it reasonable and don’t try to do one every month. (8)
- Fitness boxing, which doesn’t have to mean fighting in the ring, but rather, is the type of training a boxer does to be ready for the intensity of a fight. This includes both aerobic (with oxygen) and anerobic (without oxygen) training, which, while tough and challenging, is one of the best workouts there are for maximum exercise benefits.
- Weight training, which can mean light and aerobic, or heavy and anaerobic, depending on the individual’s fitness goals. However, no matter the type of weight training you prefer (and please, consider consulting with a trainer first if you are new at it), it has the added benefit of being the type of weight-bearing exercise your bones need to remain dense and strong. (4)
Of the many exercise benefits there are, keeping your heart healthy and your risk for cardiovascular disease low is at the top of the list. While there are many ways to add regular exercise to your day or week, the important thing is that you choose an exercise routine which gets your heart rate going, fits your goals and comfort level, and enjoy doing it!
Hypothyroidism Increases Your Risk of Heart Disease
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