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Heart Health: Exercise that Muscle

The heart is a muscle—and like any other muscle, it can be strengthened and “toned”. Did you know there exercises that can help increase the strength of your heart?

Basic Principles

The heart is both a muscle and an organ—a muscular organ. In fact, your heart is one of the strongest muscles of your body, pumping about 2500 gallons of blood every 24 hours. So while in a sense, your heart is always “exercising“, the daily pumping does not necessarily strengthen it. For example, sitting is not good for your heart. Sitting all day at work—and possibly in a stressful situation—is even worse for your heart. Overall, people who sit most of the day—the so-called “sedentary lifestyle” – are about twice as likely to have heart disease as those who live an active lifestyle.

What Exercises are Best

The first thing to know is that whatever exercise you choose, make certain it is something you would enjoy. If you aren’t going to enjoy the exercise activity, you are not likely to stick with it, are you? Think about whether you want to join a group activity—like a gym where you can join an aerobics class or, use the exercise equipment. Think about having an exercise partner—someone who will kindly encourage you and never shame you. Also, think about what shape you are currently in—and choose an activity that you can “ramp up” as you get more and more fit. Perhaps the most important thing to do (other than actually starting to exercise) is to set yourself some reasonable goals. If you are just beginning, it is NOT reasonable to think that you can job 5K on the first day. If you are doing resistance training, it is NOT reasonable to think you can leg press 500 pounds. It IS reasonable to think that you can start by walking around the block a few “laps”, jog once around the field at one of the local schools or do 10-20 reps using a 3-pound weight.

Second, it is usually best to have an exercise plan—think about getting a personal trainer or talking to the local gym about various packages they may have available. A personal trainer can be expensive, but it will be money well invested, especially if your trainer keeps you motivated and you stick with it.

Third, it is also usually best to mix and match a variety of types of exercise.

  • You should always start with a warm-up stretching routine. Stretch gently—again, setting reasonable goals. Try to stretch before you start exercising – this can help prevent any discomfort or muscle pulls. Also, take some time every day to stretch. A good time to do this is in the morning. Have you ever watched an animal like a cat or a dog wake up? The first thing they do is stretch themselves out. They seem pretty happy doing that—and it seems like a good idea for people too!
  • Choose an aerobic or “cardio” exercise. Aerobic exercise can be an aerobics class, jogging, stationary cycling, rowing, fast walking, using a treadmill, stepper or elliptical machine. If you have joint problems, low-impact aerobics activity like walking, or swimming laps can help.
  • The third “leg” of your exercise plan should include some form of resistance training. This can mean using weights, resistance bands or yoga.

How Often Should You Exercise?

It is generally recommended that your goal should be 150 minutes of moderately intensive activity a week—this should be for at least 5 days of the week, so the simplest way of starting is to aim for 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week. If you need to, work up to that by starting with 10-15 minutes a day. Remember to warm up (eg. by stretching and starting slowly) and to cool down.

Don’t forget to take reasonable precautions—as mentioned, you should make sure you don’t have any physical limitations before you “jump” into your exercise program. Stop exercising if you get dizzy, have chest pain, can’t get your breath, feel your heart pumping too hard or with an uneven heart rate. Get into the habit of taking your pulse. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you don’t exceed your “Maximum Heart Rate”. To find your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR), subtract your age from 220. So, if you are 50 years old, your MHR is 170 beats per minute. During moderate exercise intensity, your pulse rate (heart rate) should be about 50-70% of the MHR (in the example, if you are 50 years old, moderate intensity exercise means that your heart rate should range from 85 beats per minute to 119 beats every minute. During vigorous intensity exercise, the goal is 70-85% of your MHR. (ie. 119- 145 beats per minute).   Starting out, you will want to increase your heart rate by about 10-20%, working up first to the moderate intensity goal and then the vigorous intensity goal.

Nutrition for Exercise

This part is easy—as always, make sure you eat lots of vegetables and fruit, fish, poultry, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grain foods. Avoid fast, fatty or processed foods—and avoid eating a lot of red meat. Water is particularly important before, during and after exercise. You lose quite a bit of body water during exercise, so make certain you drink plenty more to make up the difference.

Exercise is an important part of maintaining overall health and especially heart health. If you do spend a good deal of time sitting, try to take a few brisk walks during your workday—every little bit helps!

Good health comes from daily decision and YOU have the power to transform your health … ONE healthy choice at a time!

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