Exercising your way to a healthier heart
When it comes to taking care of your heart, you can’t underestimate the importance of staying active. Regular exercise — even if it’s moderate — can have a marked impact on your heart’s health.
“Exercise helps the heart because it signals the heart to grow stronger,” says R. Kannan Mutharasan, MD, co-director of Northwestern Medicine’s sports cardiology program. “When you exercise, the heart grows new blood vessels and makes the existing ones grow stronger. Your body can literally grow its own bypasses.”
Exercise can improve the symptoms of heart failure by helping the heart to relax and building up buffers to acids that accumulate in the body, he says.
“Just 10 minutes of exercise a week is associated with improving health,” Mutharasan says. “Four hours of cardiovascular exercise — a brisk walk or jogging at any pace — delivers near maximal benefit, no matter what size you are.”
At Weiss Memorial Hospital, chief of cardiology Amjad Sheikh, MD, runs the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, which helps patients adapt to an exercise, diet and lifestyle routine that strengthens their heart against potential failure.
The major risk factors for heart disease — smoking, high blood pressure, lipid alterations, diabetes — can be mitigated by exercise, Sheikh says. A 2015 article published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology notes a 47 percent lower risk of re-infarction, 36 percent reduction of cardiac mortality and 26 percent reduction of all-cause mortality in patients who participated in exercise-based cardiac rehab programs.
Brisk is best
Get your heart rate up, says Gretchen Collins, director of fitness at the East Bank Club in Chicago. “While you don’t have to speed walk, your pace should be brisk,” she says.
“As you get in better shape, your heart will adapt and you will have to push yourself harder to reach the same heart rate levels,” she says. For example, beginners can start by walking outside or on a treadmill at three miles per hour to reach a target heart rate of 120 beats per minute. Within a month, they may be able to increase their speed to four miles per hour to reach the same target heart rate.
The fitter you get, the more healthy
your heart becomes.
“This shows that your fitness is improving,” Collins says, “and that your heart is working more efficiently.”
To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Beginners should reach 50 to 65 percent of this number; intermediate exercisers should reach 60 to 75 percent; and advanced exercisers should reach 70 to 85 percent, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
To tell whether you’re exercising at a brisk pace, Collins says to try the “talk test.”If you can talk and are not out of breath, then you’re within the correct heart rate range. If you can easily carry on a long conversation, you need to push yourself harder. She also recommends wearing a heart rate monitor when you work out to see if your heart rate is within the proper range.
The American Heart Association’s guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five times a week, or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise three days a week. It’s also good to incorporate moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening workouts twice a week, Collins says.
Choose whatever exercise you enjoy the most — from running on the treadmill to playing basketball. “All exercise is good for the heart,” Collins says. “I don’t want anyone to feel that any one exercise is better than another. Simply moving and keeping an appropriate heart rate is ideal. You should find the exercise you connect with, then stick with it.”
How exercise helps the heart
C. Murray Ardies, PhD, professor emeritus of health and exercise science at Northeastern Illinois University and author of Diet, Exercise and Chronic Disease: The Biological Basis of Prevention, agrees with Collins that all exercise improves heart function.
“No matter what exercise you do, the heart never stops working,” Ardies says. Working out stimulates the heart to beat faster and facilitates blood flow through the major arteries and into the muscles, staving off heart disease.
“The cause of heart disease is inflammatory cells that accumulate in the heart’s blood vessels,” he explains. “Oxidized cholesterol, the most dangerous type, can then become trapped in these inflammatory cells to form plaque.” Working out changes everything, he says.
“A hard workout for 40 to 60 minutes protects the blood vessels from being damaged by oxidation,” Ardies says.
In addition, growth factors stimulate the cells to improve their efficiency and, more importantly, to reduce the inflammation, Ardies says. “When you exercise in this manner, you get healthier, inflammatory signals disappear and your blood pressure drops. The fitter you get, the more healthy your heart becomes,” he says.
“You should work out five to seven days a week to get these benefits. Spending less time than that won’t produce the important anti-inflammatory effects,” Ardies says. If you’re beginning an exercise program, you can start slowly with one to three days a week. Then gradually increase your intensity and the length of exercise, he says.
There’s no need to be bored when you exercise. Vary your workout by taking different classes like circuit training or strength training. Or try different sports until you find the one you like.
Once you get going, you’ll be on your way to a healthier heart and body.