In recent times, you may have noticed the wave of sedentary lifestyle choices that has swept across all age groups as technological advancements have eased processes which previously required physical work. While there are many obvious advantages when one’s life becomes easier, it also comes with certain less-obvious setbacks. Physical inactivity is an established risk factor for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). Research has shown that regular exercise improves factors linked to cardiovascular health, resulting in lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels, and better blood sugar regulation. Unfortunately, with the current sedentary way of life that prioritizes comfort by reducing physical activity to complete everyday tasks, there is a serious lack of daily exercise. This is why it is necessary to consciously take up regular exercising – even a single exercise session is proved to positively influence your heart health in the long run. In fact, the Harvard Medical School calls exercising the “insurance policy for the heart”.
Exercise and Heart Health – How are they linked?
CVD has emerged as the leading cause of death all over India, with coronary heart disease affecting Indians years earlier as compared to western countries. There are various kinds of CVDs like stroke, heart arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), atherosclerotic disease (build-up of fatty plaque in arteries), and cardiomyopathy (largening or thickening of heart muscle). While some of them are genetic, many of these diseases have overlapping causes which can be corrected by a healthier lifestyle. Here is how exercise helps decrease the risk of getting heart disease:
- Exercise improves blood circulation, which may help reduce the risk of developing clots or blockages in the arteries.
- Like the muscles of the body, the heart is a muscle, and regular exercise helps keep it toned and strong. Aerobic exercises improve the muscles’ ability to draw oxygen from the circulating blood. This reduces the need for the heart to work harder to pump more blood to the muscles. Thus, exercise improves the heart’s strength to the extent where it needs fewer pumps for the same amount of blood.
- Exercise can help reduce or prevent high blood pressure in some people. Over time, exercise works similar to common blood pressure medication in that it slows down the heart rate and lowers blood pressure (both at rest and while exercising).
- Diabetes is a major risk factor of CVD and exercise almost halves your chances of developing diabetes by allowing the muscles to effectively process glycogen (a fuel for energy). When the processing of glycogen is impaired, it leads to excessive blood sugar levels, and thus, diabetes.
- Smoking is said to contribute to heart arrhythmias, but people who exercise are less likely to smoke. Several studies have confirmed that if you’re a smoker and find it difficult to quit, exercise can be beneficial.
- When coupled with a good diet, exercise aids in weight control. Being overweight or obese has been linked to numerous diseases, including diabetes, and regularly burning calories is essential to maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise has been proven to help manage stress, which can take its toll on the whole body, especially the heart. People who exercise tend to have a more positive outlook in life, the endorphin release that occurs when you exercise is very real! Or ask a runner about the ‘runner’s high’ they experience after a productive run. Relaxation as a result of exercise can decrease the burden on your heart.
- Exercise strengthens muscles and improves mobility, which makes it easier to perform daily activities. The easier these activities are, the more active one is likely to be overall.
Where do I start?
Exercise for heart health does not have to be time-consuming or heart-pounding. Research has shown that even moderate levels of exercise can have tremendously positive impacts on your cardiovascular health in the long run. You can make simple changes in your daily routine to incorporate more physical activity. Some tips are listed below:
- As much as possible, take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.
- Take a 20-minute walk after every meal, which is when one is full and not likely to do as much work. It would also aid in digestion.
- Instead of a snack break or coffee break, take a walk break between work sessions to improve oxygenation of your brain. Apart from keeping you active, this can even help boost energy and creativity.
- Try walking or cycling to the market and places in the neighbourhood instead of taking a car.
- Stand for a while when doing your work, and stretch your back and legs.
- On weekends and holidays, choose leisure activities which would assure you some walking like visiting a park, going for a picnic, etc.
- Try doing a 30-minute workout first thing in the morning so that you stay energized throughout the day. Even low-impact activities like yoga are incredibly helpful.
- Cleaning up around the house also counts as a physical activity!
In addition to these physical activities, it is always advisable to dedicatedly include workouts in your daily routine. Setting aside some time for an exercise routine is highly beneficial for weight control, managing stress levels, and improved cardiovascular performance. The exercise regimen you follow can be of varying intensities. Even if you start slow, you can incrementally improve your exercise intensity levels through a process called “ischaemic preconditioning”. This process activates a metabolic pathway responsible for preconditioning your heart. Gradually increasing your exercise intensity level will help in long-term improvements in your endurance and stamina – both of which are important for heart health. Here is a breakdown of the different exercise intensity levels. As you become more accustomed to including exercise into your routine, you can find ways to increase the intensity.
- Light intensity – requires minimal effort, you are still able to breathe easily.
- Light to moderate intensity – some effort is required, but you are still able to talk in complete sentences.
- Moderate intensity – your breathing becomes harder and you may need to take in more breaths while talking in full sentences.
- Moderate to vigorous intensity – you become slightly breathless and can only speak in short phrases.
Remember, when it comes to exercise, something is always better than nothing. It doesn’t matter how small you start, it is important however, that you do start. Do not aim for moderate to vigorous intensity exercise to begin with. The strain it will put on your body, plus the soreness that follows may deter you from exercising regularly. As with any new change in your life, start small. If you are currently dealing with a heart condition, it is recommended to take whatever precautionary measures you can to mitigate any risk to your heart health. Talk to your doctor before choosing the type of exercise you would like to undertake and make sure you get clearance from them. Caring for your heart is definitely a multifaceted process involving many different aspects of your lifestyle, but exercising is one of the most rewarding. It adds layers of protection to your heart…and that’s a good insurance policy right there!