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Active Living for your Heart Health

CardioSmart News

Staying active and keeping your body moving has real benefits. Not only can being active improve your mental and physical health, it can also help you manage risk factors for heart disease and other chronic conditions, boost your energy level, and generally improve your quality of life. 

Why is exercise important?

Research continues to show that getting regular exercise—whatever your fitness level—is one of the most important things you can do for your health. In fact, studies suggest that people who are physically active are less likely to develop heart disease than those who are inactive—even after accounting for smoking, alcohol use and diet. 

“Getting regular exercise can help keep risk factors for heart disease and other conditions in check, and help you stay heart healthy,” says JoAnne M. Foody, MD, FACC, CardioSmart.org Editor-in-Chief. “Life is busy, but it’s really important to build in time to be physically active—even if it’s just a walk around your neighborhood with a friend or opting to take the stairs instead of the elevator at work.”  

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE: Take our quiz on active living

Being physically active can help you: 

  • maintain a healthy weight
  • reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers and other conditions
  • strengthen your bones and muscles
  • feel good given the surge in mood-lifting endorphins
  • perform daily activities and prevent falls (especially in older people)
  • stay healthy by boosting your immune system
  • live longer

On the flip side, if you don’t stay active, you are more likely to develop or experience worsening cardiovascular disease. Being less active or fit means you are more likely to have high blood pressure or gain weight. In fact, exercising can lower blood pressure by 4 to 9 mmHg – that’s the same reduction one would expect by using some blood pressure-lowering medications. It also boosts “good” cholesterol.  

Something for everyone

The good news is there are exercises you can do to stay fit and maintain strength regardless of your physical health. So try not to let the fear of injury or overdoing it get in the way of adopting a regular exercise program. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity (brisk walking, for example) is generally safe for most people. Exercise is also a central part of cardiac rehabilitation programs to help prevent a future cardiac event or procedure; it teaches people how to be more active and make lifestyle changes that can lead to a stronger heart and better health overall. 

Talk with your health care team about designing an exercise program that is tailored to your specific goals and needs. 

It doesn’t have to be a marathon

If you hear “exercise” and automatically think of long-distance or endurance running or hard-core gym workouts, think again. There are a host of activities that can help get your heart pumping. Gardening, taking a walk around the neighborhood, parking farther away from your office building or the shopping mall and daily chores all count when it comes to staying active. For many older people or those with medical conditions, water aerobics is a good (and safe) option.

No matter what exercise you choose, start slowly and gradually increase your level of activity. Talk with your doctor if you have an existing heart or other condition; he/she may want to check your heart rate while you exercise. 

Setting (Realistic) Goals

Setting exercise goals that fit your lifestyle is important to keep you engaged and motivated. Think about setting short and long-term goals that are easily measured. For example, first walking or jogging to a certain landmark and, over time, signing up to participate in a local 5K fun run or race. Another goal might be to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol level. If you are recovering from a heart attack, maybe your goal is to complete a cardiac rehab program. 

Of course, how much and what type of exercise you should get will depend on your:

  • age
  • health
  • weight
  • fitness level 

Experts recommend getting 30 minutes of moderate activity most days. Newer research shows that even 10 minute bursts of activity at a time can also be beneficial. 

Tips for getting and staying active

  • Find an activity you enjoy. Life is busy, so make sure you choose activities that fit your lifestyle and personality and will keep you coming back for more.
  • Stay motivated. Write down the reasons you are committing to being more active and post them where you can see them (Are you exercising to stay healthy? Help control your weight? Because it makes you feel good?). Take a CardioSmart challenge.
  • You don’t need a gym membership. If cost or convenience is an issue, there are plenty of activities you can do at home or by finding nearby park or green space.
  • Prepare yourself for slip ups. It may take some time to make physical activity a daily part of your life.
  • Reward yourself. Find ways to mark your progress over time so that when you have a bad day, you can be your best cheerleader. Little rewards over time can help keep you motivated.
  • Keep it interesting. What types of exercise or activities do you enjoy? Do you do better outdoors or with other people? If you get bored with your usual routine, think of ways to mix it up. Listen to music, walk with a friend, try a new exercise class or video, etc.
  • Ditch the excuses and make active living a priority. Think about what keeps you from being active. How can you overcome these barriers?
  • Get support. Enlist the help of friends or family and set goals together. Promise to meet a friend or neighbor for a daily or weekly walk. If you’ve had a cardiac event or procedure, find out about cardiac rehab programs or consulting a certified trainer.
  • Don’t push yourself too hard. You should be able to talk and exercise at the same time. If you become short of breath, nauseated or dizzy or if you have pain or pressure in your chest, stop and rest.
  • Keep a record. Keep a diary or use the activity tracker so you can see your progress.  

Helpful resources/tools

Cardiosmart.org: www.cardiosmart.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Physical Activity & Health: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health/index.html?s_cid=cs_284 

American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Guidelines on Lifestyle Changes: http://content.onlinejacc.org/article.aspx?articleid=1770218

Active Living for Heart Health

(Click to view infographic)

Learn about CardioSmart's editorial process. Information provided for educational purposes only. Please talk to your health care professional about your specific needs.