Heart Disease and Exercise
Heart (or Cardiovascular) Disease is a term meant to include all diseases of the heart and circulatory system. These diseases include: coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and congenital heart defects. Heart Disease is the leading cause of death in the United States as well as in Arkansas. In fact, in America, Heart Disease kills more people every year than all forms of cancer combined … and cancer is the second leading cause of death. Additionally, Arkansas holds the dubious distinction of having the 5th highest rate of death from Heart Disease in the United States.
Some risk factors for Heart Disease, such as family history, ethnicity, and age, cannot be changed. Many risk factors for the disease, however, can be controlled. Tobacco usage, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity, uncontrolled diabetes, stress, and an unhealthy diet all contribute to the developing and worsening of Heart Disease. It’s no secret to any regular reader of this column where we are going with this, but let’s take a closer look at that list. Of those eight modifiable risk factors, physical inactivity itself is a factor. Additionally, physical activity has a direct, positive, effect on six of the other factors and it can be argued that it has an indirect effect on the other two.
Cholesterol is either ingested through our diet, or made by the liver. It cannot dissolve in the blood, so lipoproteins surround and transport it. In simplistic terms, LDL (low density lipoprotein) and its accompanying cholesterol are bad and tend to clog arteries. HDL (high density lipoprotein) is good. It travels through the blood vessels where scavenging and removing LDL, taking it back to the liver to be reprocessed. Regular physical activity lowers LDL levels, and raises HDL levels.
The role of strength training and cardiovascular exercise in preventing obesity should be a given. Strength training maintains (or adds to) the amount of lean muscle tissue each of carries on our skeletal frame. This lean tissue requires calories for maintenance. This requirement keeps our resting metabolism (the daily caloric needs of our bodies) high. Depending on its frequency, duration, and intensity, cardiovascular activity can burn significant calories. By keeping the number of daily calories our bodies need high, and burning off significant calories through cardio, we are more easily able to maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity.
Exercise helps to counteract stress by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Physical activity also provides a distraction from the worries of the day, and is proven to improve the participant’s mood. Stress and exercise don’t coexist well. Typically, the more of one you have, the less you have of the other.
The positive effects of exercise on hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes have been discussed previously in this column.
It can easily be argued that the other two modifiable risk factors, tobacco use and an unhealthy diet, are indirectly affected by an individual’s exercise habits. Exercise itself is most likely not the root cause, rather the effort dedicated to that exercise. It is rare to see a person persistent enough to exercise regularly who continues to sabotage those efforts by smoking or continuing poor eating habits.
So, by simply exercising, we can have a positive effect on nearly all the Heart Disease risk factors we have control over. “How significant a chunk of my life do I have to dedicate to exercise to realize these benefits” you may ask? Not as much as you think, actually. The American Heart Association recommends just 150 minutes a week of moderate activity. Thirty minutes, five days a week and you’re good to go! When you get in better shape it won’t even take you that long. If you can exercise vigorously, only 75 minutes a week will get the job done!
Imagine, if we simply walked for just half an hour every day, we could do away with THE leading killer of our co-workers, friends, family, and ourselves. When put in those terms, it makes me wonder why we haven’t already taken care of this … how about you?
Article written by Jefferson Regional Wellness Center Manager Jason Rogers