You already know exercise is good for the heart. Trouble is, it also seems to be one of the most difficult lifestyle habits for people to adopt.
The Link Between Exercise and Heart Disease
For decades, scientists have known that people who don’t exercise regularly are more likely to develop heart disease. More recently, they’ve discovered that people who spend most of their time sitting are also at risk of heart disease – even if they get regular exercise.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” says Dennis Kerrigan, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and health researcher at Henry Ford Health. “Getting up and moving has protective effects on the heart, even among individuals who don’t exercise much.”
Regular physical activity helps prevent coronary artery disease by reducing two key components in plaque development: circulating fats and inflammation. And if plaque has already formed, regular exercise helps build a protective cap over it to prevent it from rupturing, which is the main cause of heart attacks. In fact, even just a single bout of exercise can lower blood pressure, blood sugar and blood triglyceride levels.
Tips to Get Moving
If you go from being a couch potato to just doing a little bit, the health benefits are tremendous. “A lot of people have misconceptions about what exercise is,” Dr. Kerrigan says. “They think of gym class or running or the regimens portrayed on The Biggest Loser. But the reality is, you get the greatest benefits from moderate-intensity exercise – things like bike riding, swimming and going for a brisk walk.”
Use these five tips to get moving and reap the wellness rewards:
- Set goals. Establishing small, measurable goals can help you stay on board with a new fitness program. So instead of saying, “I want to run a 5K race,” establish specific steps you can take during each training session – walk an extra block each week, for instance – to help you reach that larger goal. Weight-loss goals are a little different; you can’t outrun a bad diet. “Exercise is a great way to maintain your weight, but if your goal is to shed pounds, you need to watch your calorie intake, too,” Dr. Kerrigan says.
- Start slow. If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start slow and gradually increase the intensity and the amount of time you exercise. During the first week, you may only be able to walk for 10 or 15 minutes every other day. But with time and practice, you can extend that time by a minute or so and then add more days. Just make sure you can carry on a conversation during exercise. If you can’t, it means your breathing is labored and you’re working too hard.
- Spread it out. Fitness experts used to think you had to exercise for at least 30 minutes at a time to burn fat and gain cardiovascular benefits. “Now we know that you can get the same gains with 10 minutes of exercise three times per day,” Dr. Kerrigan explains. Whether you opt for 30 to 45 minutes at a time or 10 minutes three to four times per day, the key is to develop a structured regimen you can maintain.
- Get support. Some people sign up with a certified physical trainer; others prefer to find a fitness buddy or join an online group. Either way, getting support can help you stay on track. Not only will you enjoy the camaraderie, you’ll also develop a sense of accountability. In fact, research shows that if you surround yourself with people who are active, you’re more likely to be active, too. Want to go the professional route? Make sure your trainer holds a certification from the American College of Sports Medicine.
- Keep a record. Studies show that tracking fitness activities, whether by smartphone app, Google spreadsheet, or old-school paper and pen, helps new exercisers stay committed. “Most smartphones come with a built-in pedometer, so you can easily challenge yourself to take more steps each day,” Dr. Kerrigan says.
Regardless of your health and fitness goals, it’s wise to have a conversation with your doctor about your heart disease risk, especially if you have high blood pressure or diabetes or if heart disease runs in your family. “But even with those challenges, your fitness level is one of the best predictive factors of future heart disease, and, most importantly, something you can improve,” Dr. Kerrigan says.
To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Dennis Kerrigan is a clinical exercise physiologist seeing patients and conducting exercise and cancer research at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield.