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Even a little exercise helps the heart

August 2011

Even a little exercise helps the heart

Even small amounts of exercise - about 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of moderate activity a week - can reduce the risk of heart disease by about 14 percent. Some physical activity is better than none, and more is better.

Prior research has pointed to myriad benefits of physical activity. Getting up and moving strengthens the heart and the lungs. Physically fit people also tend to have lower blood pressure and resting heart rate, which puts less demand on the heart. Exercise can increase insulin sensitivity, which is important in the prevention of diabetes, and can modestly boost HDL (good) cholesterol. Other studies suggest that exercise reduces inflammatory markers that may play a role in triggering heart attacks; may reduce the likelihood of clots that lead to heart attacks and stroke; and decreases the risk of life-threatening arrhythmias (irregular heart beat). Researchers analysed the results of 33 studies that assessed the health benefits of exercise. Women saw even more protective benefits from exercise than men, although this could have been a quirk of the statistics.

While 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week is the minimum goal based on current US guidelines, the researchers found even people who did less than that (75 minutes weekly) had a decreased risk of heart disease compared to total couch potatoes. Those who did more - about 300 minutes a week, or five hours - reduced their risk of heart disease, including heart attacks, angina and bypass surgeries, by 20 percent compared to people who did no exercise. People who reported exercising for 750 minutes a week, or 12.5 hours - had a 25 percent reduced risk of heart disease. But that's many more hours of working out for only a small additional risk reduction.

The researchers advised that if you are doing nothing, do something. And if you are doing something, say, walking 10 or 15 minutes, two to three times a week, do more. Moderate physical activity includes walking briskly, gardening, playing doubles tennis or dancing. Vigorous activity includes jogging, swimming laps, hiking uphill or jumping rope, although researchers did not analyze whether or not exercising vigorously was any better than moderate exercise for improving heart health.

Just as important as an exercise program is getting physical activity while going about your day, Recent research has suggested that it's not only structured exercise classes or sessions, but the incidental exercise you get when you walk around the mall, go up and down the stairs, clean the house, or mow the lawn that matters for health. In addition to a structured exercise programme, where you drive to the gym and walk on the treadmill, disguised exercise can also have a profound impact on your cardiovascular risk.  Yet physical activity, of course, isn't the sole key to preventing heart disease. Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a normal body weight, avoiding high levels of stress, and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in a healthy range all play a role.

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