Taking Care of your Heart

There is one thing that hasn’t changed since I was born. Heart disease is still the number one killer in the Western World.  Here are the latest available statistics:

  • 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year. This equals 25% of all deaths.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease in 2009 were in men.
  • Every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack. 210,000 cases involve people who have already had a heart attack.

Building muscle as we exercise is great. However if the muscle in the middle of your chest, your heart, isn’t working right, not much else is going to matter.  The heart is a fist size muscle.  Depending upon your level of fitness, it beats about 90,000 to 100,000 times each day or perhaps even more.  Within one’s lifetime, it will beat nearly three billion times and pump 42 million gallons of blood.

Unfortunately, many hearts cannot function properly because of various diseases. Most of these diseases are caused by poor lifestyle habits, lack of proper diet, being sedentary, and high stress levels.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics (USA), if all forms of CVD were eliminated, total life expectancy would rise by nearly 10 years.


There are many forms of heart disease, some more common and some very rare.  The number one thing we are all trying to avoid is having a classic heart attack. What exactly is the dreaded “heart attack”?  The medical term for a heart attack is a Myocardial Infarction. The heart requires its own constant supply of oxygen and nutrients, like any muscle in the body.

Two large, branching coronary arteries deliver oxygenated blood to the heart muscle. If one of these arteries or branches becomes blocked, a portion of the heart is starved of oxygen. This is a condition called cardiac ischemia.  If cardiac ischemia lasts too long, the starved heart tissue dies. This is your classic heart attack. What actually happens is the death of part of your heart muscle.


There is no question that lifestyle and behaviors directly affect how well the heart functions.  People who eat poor quality foods, are sedentary, or overweight, are at a higher risk for heart problems.  Stress is a negative factor for heart health, too.

On the other hand, people who are active, exercise, eat a healthy diet, and keep their stress in check have higher odds of good heart health.  But there is no question—the best line of defense against heart disease is exercise.  What is it that exercise does to keep the heart ticking efficiently?


What Exercise Does


Exercise strengthens all of the muscles utilized in human movement, and can make your heart muscle stronger. The heart is made up of four chambers: the left and right atria and the left and right ventricles. The left ventricle has the important job of pumping freshly oxygenated blood out of the heart and into the rest of the body. Regular exercise causes a small increase in the size of the left ventricle, making it easier for the heart to do its job of supplying oxygenated blood to all systems of the body.


Blood pressure is the pressure of blood on the walls of blood vessels during the contraction and relaxation phases of the heartbeat. An optimal blood pressure for an adult is at or below 120/80 mm Hg. When blood pressure remains elevated for extended periods of time, it can damage blood vessels throughout the body, increasing your risk for heart attack. Exercise can help to lower blood pressure in hypertensive individuals. Furthermore, exercise can help people with normal blood pressure to maintain healthy blood pressure levels.


Cholesterol is a compound made by the liver that is needed for several functions in the body. Cholesterol aids in digestion and the production of vitamin D and several hormones. Certain people are predisposed to having high cholesterol. However, sedentary lifestyle combined with consuming too much saturated fat is often the cause of high cholesterol. LDL-C, which is sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol,” can cause blood vessels leading to the heart to become hardened and clogged. Exercise combined with a heart-healthy diet can help to lower LDL-C in the body.

HDL-C or good cholesterol, carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to the liver so that it can be removed. Having higher levels of HDL in the blood lowers your risk for heart disease. Both aerobic exercise and resistance training have been shown to increase HDL-C and improve overall blood lipid levels.


Both aerobic and resistance exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight.  Aerobic exercise helps create an energy deficit, while resistance exercise improves lean muscle mass and body composition. This is important because excess weight, particularly in the abdominal region, can put a strain on the heart.


The body’s ability to consume and use oxygen, known as VO2 max, is a direct marker of aerobic fitness. Aerobic fitness is associated with a decreased risk for heart disease and other disease. Higher-intensity exercise seems to have a greater impact on VO2 max, but even moderate exercise has advantages.


Exercise can help to improve the emotional heart, too! That’s because exercise boosts the body’s natural feel-good hormones. These endorphins reduce feelings of pain and increase feelings of euphoria and pleasure.


Diabetes is a disease in which the body’s ability to produce insulin is impaired. This results in elevated levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. This can wreak havoc on major systems and organs in the body, including the heart and cardiovascular system. Individuals with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease, and diabetes can exacerbate pre-existing heart conditions. Exercise can help the body to manage both insulin and glucose more efficiently, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.


Sustained levels of stress can lead to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other conditions that can adversely affect the heart. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress by improving both mood and self-confidence, making daily hassles and challenges seem more manageable.

Using Exercise as Rehabilitation

50 years ago, when people had heart disease, the medical establishment did exactly the wrong thing—bed rest!  This ended up hurting the recovery of these people and many times, killing them.  Today, we have people up and moving within days and there are cardiac rehabilitation centers in the hospitals themselves. The best thing you can do for yourself after a heart attack is to get up and get moving—but in a supervised setting.  Exercise is not only the best preventative for heart disease; it is the best healer also.

Whether you are trying to prevent heart disease, recover from a heart attack, or manage your health and fitness, balanced aerobic exercise will be the key that will “add hours to your days, days to your years, and years to your life.”  


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