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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, biking – can be a remedy for a major heart risk.

“In our program what we preach is that 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.’”

Exercise benefits the heart in many ways. One major benefit is simply improving circulation and how your body uses oxygen.

“That’s how you come out with the benefits of perhaps feeling less fatigue, less short of breath and having more energy: that’s usually related to the body’s ability to draw oxygen from your circulation. So physiologically that’s one of the main mechanisms of how we improve health,” Landry explains.

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, making improvements to your fitness level can bring more independence.

“It extends far beyond heart disease in terms of its effects,” Landry says. “It’s really medicine for many ailments that can affect the body.”

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

 “If you’re inactive to start with, just a little bit of exercise will really bring a lot of benefit,” she says.

“For people who are inactive, the first thing we say is 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 to do activity to get benefit. If you just have 10 minutes in your day, that’s a good place to start.”

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.

“And then ideally over the next weeks after that you’re adding an extra 10-minute bout and so on and so forth. Ideally you’re accumulating 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity or exercise,” she says.

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

“It should feel like some work, like you’re maybe getting warm, 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.”

It’s specifically aerobic exercise that reaps all these benefits. That means 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. “Then there’s strengthening and stretching, that are other pieces to the puzzle so that you can age in a way that you’ve got the endurance to do what you want to do, but you also have the strength to bring you up the stairs and the flexibility to tie your shoes. It all blends together when you talk about general fitness.”


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 22, 2013


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