By Jennifer Turpin Stanfield for the American Council on Exercise
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. While there are some risk factors for heart disease that we can’t control, such as age, gender and family history, there are a number of things we can do to reduce our risk for heart disease. Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy. Read on for 10 ways exercise helps to protect your heart.
EXERCISE LOWERS BLOOD PRESSURE.
Did you know that your heart beats more than 100,000 times a day? Blood pressure is the pressure of blood on the walls of blood vessels during the contraction (systolic pressure) and relaxation (diastolic pressure) phases of the heartbeat. An optimal blood pressure for an adult is at or below 120/80 mm Hg. When blood pressure remains elevated for extended periods of time, it can damage blood vessels throughout the body, increasing your risk for heart attack and other life-threatening health conditions. Several studies have shown that exercise can help to lower blood pressure in mildly to moderately hypertensive individuals. Furthermore, exercise can help people with normal blood pressure to maintain healthy blood pressure levels.
EXERCISE CAN HELP TO LOWER “BAD CHOLESTEROL.”
Cholesterol is a compound made by the liver that is needed for several functions in the body, including digestion and the production of vitamin D and several hormones. Certain people are genetically predisposed to having high cholesterol, but a sedentary lifestyle combined with consuming too much saturated fat is often the cause of high cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), which is sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol,” can cause blood vessels leading to the heart to become hardened (a condition known as atherosclerosis) and clogged. Exercise combined with a heart-healthy diet can help to lower LDL-C in the body.
EXERCISE CAN BOOST “GOOD CHOLESTEROL.”
High-density lipoprotein (HDL-C) or good cholesterol, carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to the liver so that it can be removed. Having higher levels of HDL in the blood lowers your risk for heart disease. Both aerobic exercise and resistance training have been shown to increase HDL-C and improve overall blood lipid levels.
EXERCISE STRENGTHENS THE HEART MUSCLE.
You probably already know that exercise strengthens all of the muscles utilized in human movement, but did you know that exercise can make your heart muscle stronger, too? The heart is made up of four chambers: the left and right atria and the left and right ventricles. The left ventricle has the important job of pumping freshly oxygenated blood out of the heart and into the rest of the body for use. Regular exercise causes a small increase in the size of the left ventricle, making it easier for the heart to do its job of supplying oxygenated blood to all of the organs, muscles and systems of the body.
EXERCISE CAN HELP YOU TO MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT.
Both aerobic and resistance exercise can help you to maintain a healthy weight. Aerobic exercise helps create an energy deficit, while resistance exercise improves lean muscle mass and body composition. This is important because excess weight, particularly in the abdominal region, can put a strain on the heart.
EXERCISE IMPROVES THE BODY’S ABILITY TO USE OXYGEN.
The body’s ability to consume and use oxygen, known as VO2 max, is a direct marker of aerobic fitness. Aerobic fitness is associated with a decreased risk for heart disease. In this case, however, all exercise is not created equal. Higher-intensity exercise seems to have a greater impact on VO2 max.
EXERCISE IMPROVES THE FUNCTION OF THE PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulating work and rest in many of the major internal organs of the body. The sympathetic branch of the ANS is our “fight or flight” system. It is upregulated when we are physically or emotionally stressed. This branch of the ANS is necessary, but it is not ideal for the body to stay in this “on” state for extended periods of time. The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is responsible for helping the body to “pump the breaks” or slow down during times of rest. The outcome is a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Regular exercise has been shown to improve heart-rate variability and increase parasympathetic stimulation.
EXERCISE REDUCES YOUR RISK OF TYPE 2 DIABETES.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body’s ability to produce insulin is impaired. This results in elevated levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Long-term elevated blood glucose levels can wreak havoc on major systems and organs in the body, including the heart and cardiovascular system. Individuals with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease, and diabetes can exacerbate preexisting heart conditions. Exercise can help the body to manage both insulin and glucose more efficiently, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
EXERCISE CAN HELP YOU TO FEEL HAPPIER.
Not only does exercise help to improve the physical heart, exercise can help to improve the emotional heart, too! That’s because exercise boosts endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones. Endorphins reduce feelings of pain and increase feelings of euphoria and pleasure.
EXERCISE LOWERS STRESS.
Small amounts of stress are usually harmless and can sometimes even improve performance and motivation. However, sustained levels of stress can lead to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other conditions that can adversely affect the heart. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress by improving both mood and self-confidence, making daily hassles and challenges seem more manageable.
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