February is American Heart Month, a perfectly timed reboot to your New Years’ Resolutions and a reminder to refocus on long term goals such as heart health! With constantly changing information on what to eat and not to eat or which exercise is best, getting started can be discouraging. Let’s take a step back and break down some common barriers to exercising for heart health.
So what is “heart health”, and why do we care so much about it? When I talk about heart health, I’m overall talking about reducing your risk of heart attacks and strokes (among many other long term consequences of heart disease). Major components of this are your blood pressure and the cholesterol in your blood. By now, it’s no secret that eating right and staying active can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and most importantly, reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
When it comes to what exercise is best for heart health, the only right answer is, for the most part, “nothing” is bad and “anything” is good. The American Heart Association recommends moderately vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. I often have healthy 20-50 year-olds tell me, “I walk a lot at work” or “I always take the stairs” or “My walk from the parking lot is 15 minutes each way”. That is great day-to-day activity, but is your heart rate staying up for the whole 30 minutes? Are you breaking a sweat? Usually not. I continue to support keeping active throughout the day like this, and I encourage those of you who do these things to take it that next step forward. Lace up your tennis shoes and aim for focused exercise activity that is going to get your heart rate up. Go for a 30 minute jog first thing in the morning (you will be amazed at how this will change your day for the better!). Grab a friend and go to a cardio class at your gym. You can even search for aerobics videos online and do these at home before the kids get up! The more the merrier! So get moving to improve your blood pressure, lower your cholesterol, and reduce your risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Remember: you don’t have to climb Mount Everest or run a marathon today. If you do no physical activity, just starting with a 10 minute walk every other day can improve your risks. Slowly increase it by 5 minutes every day, and you will find yourself doing 30 minutes daily in no time! It takes doing something regularly for a whole month to create a new habit. For the younger folks, walking is probably not getting your heart rate to your target goal. So if you walk your dog for 30 minutes a day, challenge yourself (and your dog) to jog 5 minutes, walk 2 minutes, and so on. Both of you will reduce your risk of heart disease!
Aside from focused exercise, there is some danger to our daily sitting as well. We spend so much of our time sitting. Just this morning I sat in my car while I drove to the coffee shop, where I am now sitting to write this post. In a couple of hours, I’ll go to the clinic where I will mostly sit and talk with my patients for the rest of the day. A lot of you can mimic similar daily patterns. A sedentary lifestyle can increase our risks of heart attacks and strokes (as well as diabetes and cancer). Sitting all day does not reverse the benefits of daily exercise, but staying active throughout the day can boost the benefits! For every 20 minutes you sit, try to stand or walk around the office 5 minutes. Find excuses to go walk across the office instead of sending a message or e-mail.
Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol have a strong hereditary component, meaning that if your family members have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, you are at higher risk in comparison to someone without that family history. These genes can be so strong that there are people who can do everything right lifestyle-wise and still end up with heart disease. This is where we, as healthcare providers, can help with medication that can reduce your risks. Getting your yearly physical and having your risks assessed by your primary care physician can give you a better picture as to where your heart health is, and what can be done to lower your risks.
All in all, exercise for heart health is straightforward: doing nothing is bad, doing anything is good, and doing more is better!