How Can I Strengthen My Heart

Exercising to strengthen your heart

Being physically active is one of the most important choices we can make to keep ourselves healthy.  Exercising can help prevent both heart disease (the nation’s number 1 killer) and stroke (the national number 5 killer), and has a significant overall impact on each of the risk factors that contribute to them.

Because the heart itself is a muscle, it can respond to exercise in the same way our arms or legs can – by getting stronger and more efficient at its job.  And the optimal exercise with the greatest benefits for the heart is aerobic exercise. During aerobic exercise you are engaging in steady physical activity that utilizes your large muscle groups. This causes your heart rate to rise which increases the amount of oxygen in your blood and improves your body’s ability to use it.

Consistent aerobic exercise can also:

Strengthen your lungs

Improve your circulation

Increase energy levels so you can do more without becoming tired or short of breath

Lower your blood pressure

Improve your balance

Strengthen bones

Help manage your weight

Reduce stress and decrease depression

Improve your sleep

Boost your immune system

Aerobic exercise has also been found to decrease inflammation in the body which reduces the risk of the fatty build-up in arteries that causes most cases of heart disease.

Examples of Aerobic Exercises

There are a myriad of aerobic exercises to choose from based on your level of fitness and your interests including walking at a brisk pace, jogging, jumping rope, cycling (stationary or outdoor), swimming, dancing, skating, circuit training, rowing, using cardio equipment at the gym or taking low-impact aerobics classes or water aerobics classes. While any of these choices are good for your heart, the best may be brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling and circuit training.

How to Get Started

Before you begin any exercise program, you must talk to your doctor about your medications since some can impact your response to increased activity.  Also ask your doctor if lifting or pushing heavy objects (or doing labor-intensive chores such as raking or shoveling) are off limits and tailor your exercise program to the guidelines and parameters he or she provides to you.  Once you have your doctor’s approval, start slowly and build up the length and intensity of your exercise over time.

How Often to Exercise For a Healthy Heart

To achieve maximum benefits, you should gradually work up to an aerobic session lasting 30 minutes, four to five times a week.  The American Heart Association suggests either 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise.  And you can experience the benefits of this activity even if you divide your exercise time during the day into two or three segments of 10 minutes.

What to Include In Your Program

Every time you engage in exercise, you should include an initial warm-up, a conditioning or actual exercise phase and then a cool-down.  Each of these stages serves a very important purpose and should not be bypassed.

Warm-up– a warm up gives your body adequate time to move from rest to exercise and adjust to the demands you’re about to make on it.  It will allow your breathing and heart rate to increase slowly rather than suddenly and reduces the stress on your heart and muscles.  Warm up by stretching slowly and then engaging in simple movements at a low intensity level.

Conditioning or exercise phase– this is the phase in which the benefits of exercise are gained and during which your heart and cardiovascular system become stronger. It should consist of 20-30 minutes of vigorous activity.

Cool down– after completing vigorous activity, give your body time to return to a normal heart rate and blood pressure by slowly decreasing your activity and movement.  Do not sit down, lie down or stand still immediately after the vigorous portion of your program since you may become dizzy or lightheaded if you stop suddenly.

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