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Published on June 27, 2012

The Heart Healthy Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise

By Angie O’Connor, Avera Sacred Heart Wellness Center

We hear the term “cardiovascular exercise” all the time, but do we really know what it means and the benefits it provides to our overall health?
Cardiovascular – sounds like a big word doesn’t it? Cardiovascular simply refers to your heart and blood vessels. Like any other muscle, the heart needs  exercise to get stronger and stay healthy. This can mean different things for different people. For someone who has led a sedentary lifestyle for a long time, a brisk walk for a half-hour might be the start of a good cardiovascular exercise program. For someone who is very active and exercises regularly, a good cardiovascular exercise might include a five- to 10-mile jog or run, or a long bike ride.

The simple act of doing anything that increases your heart rate for a sustained period of time – preferably a half-hour minimum – will benefit your entire cardiovascular system.

We live in a society that has become increasingly obese and sedentary in its ways. We have, for one reason or another, become a very sedentary society. We spend too much time at the computer, playing video games, watching television and simply sitting around doing nothing. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as many as 250,000 deaths are due to this sedentary lifestyle – that’s 10 percent of lives that are lost annually in the United States. Even more specifically, 34 percent of heart disease deaths are attributed to inactivity.

Those are definitely some sobering statistics, but there is a silver lining – we have the ability to reduce the mortality rate in America by as much as 10 percent if we simply become active. It may sound like a chore when that couch and television set seem to be calling your name every night, but your heart wants and needs to work to stay strong and efficient.
Some of the heart healthy benefits of exercise include:

  • decreased resting blood pressure
  • decreased body fat
  • decreased total and LDL cholesterol
  • increased HDL (good) cholesterol
  • can control or prevent the development of diabetes
  • reduced stress

You can run, but you can’t walk
That line may be a little deceptive, but there’s some solid evidence that a simple leisurely stroll, while better than the couch, really doesn’t benefit your heart much at all. It is recommended that more strenuous exercise and physical activity on a regular basis can significantly reduce the risk of early death due to heart disease. Does this mean you need to start running marathons? Of course not. However, it does mean that if your choice of exercise is walking, you should be doing it at a brisk pace. If it feels like you’re working at it, it’s much better for you than if it’s a “piece of cake.”

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office guidelines recommend that people engage in moderate exercise or physical activity, such as brisk walking, for at least 30 minutes most days of the week to reduce the risk of heart disease. There are some people who believe you should do  30 minutes of exercise all in one session, and others, more recently, have said you can break it up throughout the day.  All agree, however, that you need to be active to reduce your risk for developing heart disease.

Stressing your heart through aerobic or cardiovascular exercise has proven to be better for your heart than strength or flexibility training although each plays an important role in your overall health. By increasing your heart rate for an extended period of time, through walking, running, biking or swimming for example, you are making your heart a stronger muscle.  It’s the same as if you were lifting a hand weight to strengthen muscles in your arms. Anytime you stress a muscle on a regular basis you are making it stronger. You can actually reduce the amount of plaque build-up in your arteries, make your arteries more elastic, control blood sugar that can damage your arteries if too high and improve circulation with regular aerobic exercise. It’s also very important to do your exercise at least 3-5 days per week with a goal of 20-60 minutes per day.  Starting with only a few minutes per day and building up can still provide you health benefits.
Regular exercise provides us with so many benefits including the reduction in risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It can also help us recover faster from those diseases should we acquire one. It almost seems ridiculous, when you look at all the facts, not to exercise.

Angie O’Connor is the Coordinator of the Avera Sacred Heart Wellness Center.