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Heart disease

Exercise and cardiovascular risk

We hear from just about everywhere that exercise is good for us. But just what does it do? Is it worth it? What if you’re already pretty healthy?

Even if you’re healthy, regular exercise has many positive effects on your body. Here are just a few:

  • It helps your blood vessels become less stiff, which allows them to respond to stress better and reduces high blood pressure
  • It makes your body more sensitive to the effects of the hormone called insulin, which reduces your risk of developing diabetes
  • It can increase the amount of 'good' cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol) in your body and reduce the amount of 'bad' cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol)
  • It affects your brain chemistry, helping to fight depression
  • It improves your muscle strength 
  • It improves your body's ability to use oxygen, giving you more stamina

Many of these benefits also help to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels like heart attack and stroke). And the good news is that you don't have to be a marathon runner or Olympic athlete. You can gain a lot just from exercising regularly at a moderate level.

What kind of exercise should I do?

When it comes to cardiovascular health, aerobic exercise – exercise that raises your heart rate – is your best bet. A moderate level of exercise would be something like walking briskly (about 5 to 6 km per hour), yard work, cycling or swimming.  More vigorous exercise might be running, aerobics, rowing, fast dancing or hiking. A mix of activities works too.

How often should I exercise?

The American Heart Association suggests at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of both). A reasonable goal would be 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, five times a week. It doesn’t have to be done all at once, you’ll also experience benefits if you divide your day’s exercise into two or three segments of 10 to 15 minutes each.

How should I start exercising?

If you have not been doing regular exercise, the best plan is to ease into it. Start with small achievable goals and work up over time.  If you already have heart disease, are over 45 years of age, and have two or more risk factors for heart disease (such as a family member who developed heart disease before age 55, smoking, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity or you have been sedentary for a long time), talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Is it safe to exercise if I have heart disease?

If you have a chronic medical condition, exercise programs can be designed around whatever limitations you may have – but they should be worked out with your doctor. Studies show that people with recently diagnosed heart disease who participate in an exercise program return to work and other activities earlier – but there is a small risk of having a heart attack or serious heart rhythm disorder while exercising. Always consult with your doctor first.

Exercise and cardiovascular risk
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