Regular exercise is an important way to lower your risk of heart disease.
Exercising for 30 minutes or more on most days can help you lose weight, improve your cholesterol, and even lower your blood pressure by as many as five to seven points. A sedentary lifestyle, where your job and your leisure activities involve little or no physical activity, doubles your risk of dying from heart disease. This is similar to the increased risk you’d have if you smoked, had high cholesterol, or had high blood pressure. (1)
Three phases of exercise
Like a recipe, these three phases are the essential ingredients of your exercise session:
This phase helps you move from rest to activity. Just as you allow a car to warm up when the engine is cold to prevent damage to the motor, a warm-up lessens the stress placed on your heart and muscles. The warm-up helps to slowly increase breathing, heart rate and body temperature. It also helps to improve flexibility and reduce muscle soreness.
The warm-up may include:
- Stretching exercises
- Range of motion activities
- Your exercise activity at a very low intensity (for example, walking at a very slow pace)
For the best effects on your muscles and cardiovascular system, your warm-up should last about five minutes. (2)
This phase follows the warm-up and provides you with the benefits of exercise. For the best results, remember these four important points in your Conditioning Phase:
- Frequency: how often you need to exercise
Exercise on most days of the week
- Intensity – how vigorous you need to exercise
Moderate intensity – enough to get your heart rate and breathing to increase
- Duration – how long you need to exercise
30 to 40 minutes of continuous exercise OR 10 minute increments to equal 30 to 40 minutes throughout the day. Your weekly time should total 150-200 minutes in the conditioning phase
If you haven’t exercised in a while, your heart, lungs, and muscles will need to work up to your exercise duration. Begin with shorter bouts of exercise, about 15 minutes or so, every other day. Progress by three to five minute increments per week until you reach your goal of 30 to 40 minutes on most days.
- Type – the type of activity that will give you the desired results.
Exercise must involve the large muscle groups. You can vary your routine by engaging in more than one activity. A combination of walking, swimming, and cycling strengthens several muscle groups and will prevent you from becoming bored. (3)
This last phase allows your body to recover from the conditioning phase. Heart rate and blood pressure will return to near resting values. Cool-down does not mean sit down! In fact you should not stand still, sit or lie down right after exercise. This may cause you to feel dizzy, lightheaded or have palpitations.
- Slowly decrease the intensity of your activity
- Perform the stretching and range of motion exercises from your warm-up phase
- Like the warm-up phase, the cool-down should last about five minutes for the best results.
Include all three phases in your exercise session to avoid injury and problems during exercise. Always consult a doctor before beginning any strenuous exercise program. (4)
Understanding just how physical activity benefits your heart can be strong motivation to get moving to get moving more. Here’s what to know:
Exercise works like beta-blocker medication to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure (at rest and also when exercising). High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. (5)
Especially when combined with a smart diet, being physically active is an essential component for losing weight and even more important for keeping it off, Stewart says—which in turn helps optimize heart health. Being overweight puts stress on the heart and is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. (6)
A combination of aerobic workouts (which, depending on your fitness level, can include walking, running, swimming, and other vigorous heart-pumping exercise) and strength training (weight lifting, resistance training) is considered best for heart health. These exercises improve the muscles’ ability to draw oxygen from the circulating blood. That reduces the need for the heart—a muscular organ itself—to work harder to pump more blood to the muscles, whatever your age.
As smokers become fit, they often quit. And people who are fit in the first place are less likely to ever start smoking, which is one of the top risk factors for heart disease because it damages the structure and function of blood vessels.
Johns Hopkins research has shown that when combined with strength training, regular aerobic exercise such as cycling, brisk walking, or swimming can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by over 50% by allowing the muscles to better process glycogen, a fuel for energy, which when impaired, leads to excessive blood sugars, and thus diabetes. (7)
Stress hormones can put an extra burden on the heart. Exercise—whether aerobic (like running), resistance-oriented (like weight training) or flexibility-focused (like yoga)—can help you relax and ease stress.
With regular exercise, chronic inflammation is reduced as the body adapts to the challenge of exercise on many bodily systems. This is an important factor for reducing the adverse effects of many of the diseases just mentioned. (8)
It’s easier than you might think to improve your health with exercise. You don’t have to jog for an hour a day. In fact, some studies have shown greater health benefits from light to moderate exercise simply because people are more likely to stick with it. Your heart health improves with just 30 minutes of exercise on most days. Two 15-minute segments of exercise or three 10-minute segments still count as 30 minutes. Just make sure the activity is vigorous enough to raise your heart rate. Try the talk/sing test: If you can’t talk while you exercise, you’re working too hard. If you can sing, you need to work harder.
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