In the last two articles I defined what cardiovascular disease (CVD) is, its causes and the key role that diet plays in prevention and treatment. Here we’ll look at the role exercise and lifestyle plays in heart health.
Modern conveniences and a sedentary lifestyle don’t provide a lot of opportunity for exercise so we need to make a special effort to get it. Inactivity increases cardiac risk by 50 times compared to those who exercise 5 times per week (Circulation 2003). Exercise benefits the heart by helping maintain healthy weight, controlling cholesterol levels and reducing stress. It also benefits mental and cognitive functions. If you live in a beautiful pedestrian-friendly city like Paris, you can walk to many places rather than always using public transportation. Try taking the stairs instead of an elevator. Stair-climbing is a very effective exercise that has similar benefits to vigorous exercises like jogging.
Aerobic exercise produces a sustained increase in heart rate and breathing, which increases oxygen consumption and metabolism. It helps create new capillaries, which benefit the heart and overall circulation. Aerobic exercises also release endorphin hormones, which makes you feel positive and happy. A 2008 study of heart disease in Europe found that moderate intensity endurance or aerobic activities (such as brisk walking) for about 150 minutes per week helps prevent heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise most days of the week. Even minimal amounts of exercise can make a difference (Circulation 2011). The study found that people who met the minimum guidelines of burning 550 calories a week through exercise, had a 14 percent lower risk of heart disease than their non-exercising peers. Those burning 1100 calories a week had a 20 percent lower risk than their non-exercising counterparts. The best forms of low impact aerobic exercise are swimming, bicycling, treadmills, stair climbing and trampoline.
Some ways of exercising have benefits over others. For example, vigorous bicycle riding protects people against heart disease better than gentle riding (EHJ 2011). It is the intensity of the exercise, not the duration that made the biggest difference in terms of mortality, longevity and disease prevention. Very vigorous exercise over short periods of time (10 minutes) is as effective as moderate-intensity exercise over longer periods. If you want a time-efficient effective exercise, this is the way to go.
The other key lifestyle factors are stress, smoking and alcohol. Surprisingly, the number of people smoking in countries like France is still quite high. Smoking cigarettes not only harms the lungs but is among the top heart disease risk factors. Smoking negatively effects blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Studies show that smoking effects women’s heart health even more than men’s. Alcohol consumption should be in moderation.
Mental stress can create excess hormones that remain present in the body and add to health risks. Worrying and anxiety unnecessarily increase heart rate and blood pressure. This causes strain on the arteries and can damage the arterial lining. Learning to respond to stressful situations in a calmer more balanced way puts much less stress on the heart. Meditators experienced a clinically significant reduction in blood pressure and psychological stress. A 2009 (AAAS) study found that coronary heart disease patients who practiced stress-reducing meditation had 50 percent lower rates of heart attack, stroke and death compared to patients who did not meditate. In some cases meditation can be as effective as heart disease medication!
Depression and loneliness also contribute to heart disease, and there is a strong link between these factors and CVD (C.C.J.M. 2003). Positive emotions like love and happiness have a strong life-enhancing connection to the heart. Depression in heart disease patients is three times higher than the rest of the population (Harvard Rev. Psychiatry 2009). After obesity, emotional stress is on par with physical risk factors. Stress related hormones constrict blood vessels, which require more effort by the heart to function. People suffering from depression have a higher than normal rate of sudden cardiovascular death, ischemic heart disease (ADAA 1998). Depression should be treated not only for your mental and emotional wellbeing but for your heart’s sake. Excess cortisol, a hormone released during stress, increases platelet activation and over stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. Platelet over-activation increases the risk of CVD because it can damage arteries. When platelets attempt to heal the damage, they may thicken the arterial walls, which can increase the possibility of blockage. Smoking and emotional stress produce higher levels of C-reactive protein, which causes artery inflammation and promotes CVD and strokes.
Yoga and Tai Chi help lower cardiovascular risk factors. Studies of Yoga show an impressive list of health benefits that include reducing high blood pressure (hypertension), easing palpitations, decreasing sensitivity to insulin, and it is ideal for cardiac rehabilitation. Deep-breathing exercise slows breathing rates, calms the mind, decreases overall stress and helps prevent and manage hypertension. All help lower cardiovascular risk factors. For some people less high-intensity exercises may be more appropriate for their condition and life circumstances.
The keys to creating a heart-healthy lifestyle are to stop smoking, to eat a low to non-saturated fat diet, drink alcohol in moderation, to learn how to manage stress, and exercise at least 30 min. of moderate-intensity activity 5 days per week or 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity at least three days per week. Exercise both protects your heart and enhances positive emotions and attitude.