How strong is your heart? By some calcuations, the healthy heart can produce enough energy in an hour to lift a one-ton car off the ground. That’s pretty strong, but what happens if your heart isn’t healthy? A damaged heart doesn’t work very well, perhaps leaving your body starved for oxygen. Even worse, if your arteries are damaged and your heart doesn’t get enough blood, you may have trouble lifting your own body out of a hospital bed, much less lifting a car off the ground.
The good news: You do have some control over how healthy your heart is. What you do, what you eat and how you live can actually change how your heart works. It’s amazing if you think about it — you actually have the power to make your heart stronger with just a few changes in your lifestyle. That’s a tremendous power to have, but are you taking advantage of it?
Focus on Your Heart
There are so many things to worry about these days, it’s tough to get too riled about something we can’t see or feel. Many types of heart disease fall into that category and, though it’s the single largest killer of American men and women, for many of us, it isn’t even on the radar. When we talk about heart disease, what we usually mean is coronary artery disease. If your coronary arteries, which supply oxygen to the heart, become blocked, your heart doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to function. That could lead to a heart attack or even death.
It’s important to become familiar with heart disease symptoms for women and men, but not everyone has obvious symptoms that point to a problem. It’s possible to have high blood pressure or high cholesterol and feel just fine, which leads many of us to believe that, if we feel healthy, then we are healthy.
This is especially true of women, who may not experience the typical heart disease symptoms we see in men. For example, women may not feel any chest pain, but will often complain of a burning sensation in the shoulders, back, arms or jaw. Because these symptoms don’t seem related to heart problems, women may be misdiagnosed, which could mean problems down the road.
That isn’t to say that all of us are walking around with heart disease. It’s possible that you’re healthy now, but that some of the things you’re doing put you at risk for future heart problems. Just some things that can contribute to heart disease include:
Being overweight or obese
Family history of heart problems
Eating a high fat diet
Some of the things in this list prove that you do have some control over your heart. You can quit smoking, lose some weight and learn how to unclench your jaw everytime somebody cuts you off in traffic. But, if doing all these things at once seems too overwhelming, I have just the place for you to start. There’s one thing you can do right now that will improve your heart health immediately.
How to Change Your Heart
If you’ve ever worked out, you’ve certainly felt the immediate effects of exercise – your heart speeds up as your body demands more oxygen, your breathing rate increases and you start to sweat to cool your body. All of those things go back to normal as soon as you stop exercising, but, what you may not know is that exercising consistently can actually changehow your heart functions. Regular exercise:
Lowers your resting heart rate (RHR). A heart that’s in good shape actually beats fewer times when you’re at rest. That’s why many athletes have resting heart rates as low as 40 or 50 beats per minute. As you exercise, you’ll find your RHR will decrease as you get into better shape.
Makes the heart more efficient. Consistently exercising the heart makes it work harder for you with less effort expended. That means normal activities become easier since your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
Strengthens the heart. Just like lifting weights repeatedly can make your muscles stronger, regular cardio exercise actually makes your heart (which is also a muscle) stronger. The stronger your heart is, the more blood it can pump with each beat. That means your body gets oxygen faster and more efficiently.
Helps you recover faster. When you exercise regularly, it doesn’t take as much time for your heart rate to return to baseline. That recovery time becomes faster and faster as you get in shape. Tracking recovery heart rate is one way experts track improved fitness levels.Protects your health. As your heart gets stronger, it reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Increases good cholesterol. Not only does it increase good cholesterol, regular exercise also decreases bad cholesterol (LDL) which means there may be less plaque built up in the arteries. Less plaque means blood can flow freely to and from the heart.
It’s amazing that something as simple as moving your body can have such dramatic benefits but even knowing this, some of us still aren’t exercising. If that sounds familiar, you may feel relieved to learn that you don’t have to exercise for hours a day to get the benefits. Even just a little movement can make a difference. Learn what you can do to exercise your heart.
If your goal is to strengthen your heart and reduce your risk of heart problems, how much exercise do you really need? You’ve probably heard some of the general guidelines for exercise which usually recommend an hour of exercise each day. But, as Heart Disease Guide Dr. Rich notes in his article, How Much Exercise is Really Necessary?, you can get the heart benefits with about 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, which translates to about 20 minutes most days of the week.
If you want to lose fat or make major changes in your body, you’ll need to do more exercise and work a little harder at it but, for health benefits, shooting for at least 20-30 minutes a day is a great place to start. Here’s a breakdown of the recommendations and how you can implement them into your own life:
Exercise: The recommendation to exercise generally refers to things like walking, running, cycling, swimming…any rhythmic activity that gets your heart rate up (preferably into your target heart rate zone). Most people start with a basic walking program, but you should choose things you enjoy and that you can see yourself doing on a regular basis.
Moderate intensity: Moderate intensity usually means you’re working at about 60 to 70% of yourmaximum heart rate, or what would be a level 4 to 6 on this perceived exertion scale. That doesn’t mean you only have to work at this level. Throwing in somehigh intensity bursts throughout your workout is great for your heart (not to mention your calorie-burn) and longer, slower workouts at a lower intensity have great benefits as well. Incorporating a mix of intensities will keep things interesting while benefitting your heart even more.20-30 Minutes: The minimum recommendation for almost anyone with any goal is about 20-30 minutes but, when setting up your workouts, go by what you can handle. For example, a beginner might want to start with 5-15 minutes and work up from there. If you have a busy schedule, you may want to split your workouts, which is just as effective as continuous exercise. Don’t skip exercise just because you can’t do 20 minutes. Any movement is always better than nothing. Don’t be afraid to be creative with your time or to start small. Start where you are, not where you want to be.
Most days of the week: Like the other exercise elements, how often you exercise is up to you, what you can handle and what your schedule allows. If you’re a beginner, you may start with 3 days a week with a day of rest in between. More advanced exercisers may do something every day of the week. The more you exercise, the more you’ll want to exercise so, again, start with what feels good to you and go from there.
If you’re still not motivated to get moving, these tips can help you work through the obstacles that stand in your way:
Get rid of excuses. One popular reason we skip exercise is because we have other, more important, things to do. Now that you know how little time it takes and how much stronger your heart will be, you can finally put this excuse to rest. Is there anything more important than a strong heart and a healthy future? Learn more about exercise excuses.
Focus on health. Now that you know all the positive changes your body makes every time you exercise, you can imagine those changes whenever you exercise. Imagine your heart pumping more blood with each beat, the oxygen rushing through your body, all the energy you’re building every time you move. Visualizing all the positive things happening inside your body can help you follow through with your exercise commitments.
Keep it simple. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the exercise choices but, as you can see from the recommendations, it doesn’t take much to strengthen your heart. Start with a simple, accessible activity and decide when, where and how you’ll fit it in each week. All you have to do is stick with that schedule and add more when you’re ready for it.
Be flexible. If you can’t get your workouts in, think of other ways to be more active. Walk extra laps at the grocery store or the mall, skip the escalators or take the dog for an extra-long walk. All movement is good for your heart, even if it isn’t a structured workout.
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