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Exercise is strong medicine for heart health

One of the most powerful treatments to help prevent heart disease doesn’t need a prescription. Cardiovascular exercise – such as walking, swimming, and biking – can be a remedy for a major heart risk.

“Physical inactivity is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. Thankfully that’s a risk factor that we can do something about. And it’s never as much work as you think it is to be able to get the medicine from exercise, to get the benefit,” says Registered Physiotherapist Mireille Landry, Exercise Coordinator for the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative (WCHI) at Women’s College Hospital.

“Within our cardiac rehab and primary prevention setting one of the things we hear most often is ‘Oh, that’s not as difficult as I expected it to be.’”

Benefits: breathing, body and beyond

Exercise benefits the heart in many ways. One major benefit is simply improving circulation and how your body uses oxygen, which can provide benefits such as feeling less fatigue, less shortness of breath and having more energy.

The heart is a muscle, and by exercising you improve its strength and its ability to be an effective pump. Exercise helps your body work more efficiently, says Landry. That can improve your resting heart rate, and may also help to control blood pressure and cholesterol, manage healthy weight and delay or manage diabetes. But the benefits don’t end with the heart. Exercise has also been linked to reduced risk for some cancers, including breast and colorectal cancers, as well as for conditions such as osteoporosis.

It’s also linked to being able to carry on activities of daily living in the community. For people who are aging who have low fitness and may have chronic conditions, improvements your fitness level can bring more independence.

Small steps

People may think it’s difficult to start getting more physically active, especially if they are inactive to begin with. However, it doesn’t have to be hard or complicated, and Landry says inactive people have the most to gain.

“Just a little bit of exercise will really bring a lot of benefit,” she says. “Anything is better than nothing. You need to start in small steps. We know that when it comes to accumulating physical activity for heart health, bouts as short as 10 minutes count. So you don’t have to figure out 30 to 60 minutes of available time.”

Landry recommends choosing a 10-minute period to go for a walk – whether it’s in the morning or between errands at lunchtime or getting off the bus or subway a stop or two early. Do that every other day for a couple of weeks. Then try to step up to 10 minutes every day, and do that for a couple of weeks.

“Ideally over the next weeks after that you’re adding an extra 10-minute bout,” she says. “Ideally you’re accumulating 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity.”

Moderate effort

Moderate exercise means you feel like there’s some effort involved.

“You might be getting to a point where you’re perspiring or sweating a little bit, there’s a definite change in your breathing where it’s deeper, but you can still carry on a conversation at the same time. So working harder doesn’t mean it’s so hard that you’re short of breath,” Landry explains. “Something we use in the gym is called a talking test, so if you’re able to talk while you’re exercising that’s a good sign. You shouldn’t be able to sing, and you shouldn’t be gasping. It’s called a sing, talk, gasp test.”

Aerobic benefits

It’s specifically aerobic exercise that offers all these benefits: using large muscle groups rhythmically over time, as one does when doing activities like walking, swimming or biking. Other types of exercise such as yoga or working with weights are great for stretching and strengthening, but don’t provide much cardiovascular benefit.

“When we talk about fitness, aerobic or endurance exercise is the big one,” Landry says. Combining aerobic with strengthening and stretching exercises as we age is important to overall fitness, so that you have the endurance to do what you want to do, the strength to do things like climb stairs, and the flexibility to get you in and out of positions, like tying your shoes.

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 4, 2014

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