While there are numerous benefits to exercise and physical activity, one of the most important benefits is heart health. A sedentary lifestyle is one of the top risk factors for heart disease and stroke. People who don't exercise have higher rates of heart disease and death compared to people who perform even mild to moderate amounts of physical activity. Even activities like gardening, walking or golfing can lower your risk of heart disease.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the No.1 killer in America, affecting more than 13 million Americans. CVD encompasses a variety of disorders and conditions that can affect the heart and blood vessels in the body. The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD is a process in which cholesterol plaque builds up in the arteries of both the heart and body. This plaque restricts blood flow to vital organs including the heart. Reduced blood flow to the heart and organs can result in a heart attack or stroke. Exercise and a proper diet can help reduce the formation of this detrimental plaque. Even a moderate exercise program can help people reduce the "risk" factors that lead to CVD.
Taking the following steps can normally reduce a person's risk for CVD:
• Quit smoking
• Improve cholesterol levels
• Control high blood pressure even if medication is needed
• Exercise to maintain muscle mass and flexibility
• Eat nutritious, low fat foods
• Maintain a healthy weight
• Control diabetes
Regular exercise improves cholesterol levels by lowering LDL (bad), raising HDL (good) and by reducing triglyceride levels. Exercise is very effective in lowering blood pressure as well. Blood pressure is the tension in the walls of your arteries as the heart pumps blood with each beat. If the pressure is elevated above normal and remains high for a period of time, this can be damaging to the organs of the body including the heart, vessels, brain and kidneys. Over 50 million people in the U.S. have high blood pressure, making it the most common heart disease risk factor. Additionally, people who are physically active have a lower risk of getting high blood pressure than people who are not active.
Exercise also helps in maintaining a healthy weight and in retaining muscle strength. Excess weight puts significant strain on your heart and worsens several other heart disease risk factors, such as diabetes.
Research has shown that obesity itself increases heart disease risk. By eating properly and exercising, you can maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Developing a steady exercise program is an easy way to make an impact on your cardiovascular health; however, it's important to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise plan.
In general, to achieve maximum benefits, you should gradually work up to an aerobic session lasting 20 to 30 minutes, at least four times a week. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, bicycling and swimming. Yoga and Pilates are also excellent sources of exercise and strength. If you choose an activity you enjoy, it's more likely you'll stick with it.
Remember, it's important to warm-up before starting your aerobic exercise and to cool-down upon completion of your session. Start with shorter time sessions and gradually build up to optimize time frames.
While exercising, you are effectively improving your cholesterol levels, lowering your blood pressure, getting active, maintaining a healthy weight and overall, reducing your risk of heart disease. Exercise presents so many wonderful benefits, but heart health is by far one of the most important.
• Dr. Rachel Chaney is a cardiologist on staff with Carson Tahoe Regional Healthcare.