This is one of a series of columns about health issues written by staff members of ProMedica, Mercy, Toledo Clinic, and the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio.
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. In fact, about 250,000 deaths in the U.S. each year are attributed to people not getting enough exercise.
Why is regular physical activity so good for you heart health? Studies have shown that people who are more active and physically fit are less likely to develop heart disease compared to people in their age group with similar risk factors. Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, regulate your blood pressure, keep your cholesterol levels healthy, and help you manage other medical conditions, such as diabetes (another major risk factor for heart disease). The good news is that it doesn’t matter when you start exercising. Even if you are a late bloomer who hasn’t exercised much, you’ll still benefit from adding physical activity to your daily routine.
To begin to understand the benefits of exercise, it helps to know how the heart works. The heart pumps to send oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the various parts of your body. When you exercise, your blood vessels become wider, allowing blood to flow better. When you exercise, your muscles (including your heart) get stronger and learn how to use oxygen more efficiently. This puts less strain on the heart when performing everyday activities.
There are two kinds of activity: aerobic and anaerobic exercise. In aerobic exercise, such as walking and cycling, oxygen is used to fuel the muscles. In anaerobic exercise, such as weight lifting and sprinting, muscles are deprived of oxygen and must use sugar for energy. Anaerobic exercise tires your muscles quickly. That is why anaerobic exercises are done at a higher intensity for a shorter amount of time.
From a heart health perspective, aerobic exercise is better. It allows your heart rate to increase gently and teaches your heart how to take on increasing demand. This trains your heart to warm up, perform the exercise and then go back to its normal state.
Anaerobic exercise releases a chemical called lactic acid, which can be unhealthy for your heart in large amounts. But remember: anaerobic exercise also has benefits, such as muscle strengthening. The American Heart Association recommends combining aerobic and anaerobic exercise into your fitness routine.
When first beginning to exercise aim for 30 minutes of modest activity most days of the week. Walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, and working around the house are all great examples of aerobic exercise that will help strengthen your heart. Don't worry if you don't have a large chunk of time to exercise each day. You can split up your workout time throughout the day and still receive the benefits.
It may be encouraging to know that you don't have to run a 5K in order to have good heart health. In fact, the biggest improvement usually occurs when people make that first step to add regular exercise to their sedentary lifestyle. And, in addition to the benefits to your heart, most people see benefits to their quality of life from this first step. You may experience more energy during the day, sleep better at night, eat better, and have better stress management. Other parts in your life tend to fall into place when you put your heart health first.
If you have concerns about your health, have high blood pressure or other existing conditions, or you are a smoker, talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Your doctor can help ensure that you are exercising safely.
Gopinath Upamaka, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians Cardiology. For more information, go to promedica.org/heart.
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