Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in Australia, as in a number of other countries. We think though, that a huge amount of heart disease is preventable and exercise is an important way to do that. We know that exercise is so good for your heart, the day after my patients wake up from major open heart surgery, including a mechanical heart or a transplant, we get them exercising. Obviously noting too strenuous, but even just walking around our wards gives some benefits to heart health.
Exercise is good not only for our heart but it has benefits for our whole body. Exercise has been shown to improve not only our hearts, but reduce our risk of cancer, dementia, diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s also great for our mental health, being great for preventing and treating depression. When it comes to our heart health, exercise is about as close to a cure all as you can get.
Just like lifting weights at the gym, exercise helps strengthen the heart muscle and makes it more efficient. When you exercise, your heart rate climbs and your heart muscle squeezes harder, pumping out more blood with each heartbeat to your working muscles. The more you exercise, the more efficient and stronger your heart muscle becomes. For people who are elite athletes, we can even see the heart increase in size a little, just like our biceps! It also means at rest, our heart gets so efficient that it can beat a lot slower. Athletes sometimes have a resting heart rate of around 30 beats per minute (most of us are around 60-80 per minute).
The other way exercise benefits our hearts relates to our blood vessels. When we exercise, blood rushes through our blood vessels much faster. This helps our blood vessels stay healthy by making them work a little harder too. The lining of our blood vessels release substances that keep themselves soft and supple so that even when we’re not exercising, our blood vessels can deliver nutrients much easier.
Any form of exercise brings us benefits for our heart, whether it be walking, playing sport, swimming or dancing. Weight lifting probably doesn’t bring as many heart benefits as some of these other activities, but if you enjoy that, it still helps to keep us fit. Yoga is another exercise that is good for our hearts not just for the physical movement it brings but also for the mindful practice which aids in stress reduction. You also don’t need to be marathon running to get health benefits; even at a slow pace, just 5 minutes a day improves your heart health.
The next question is obviously how much exercise do you need to do? The WHO recommends that we do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week. Moderate means that you can have a chat but you could not sing. If you do high intensity exercise, you can do 75 minutes per week and this means that you could definitely not talk because you’re too out of breath.
That being said, any moving you do is good for your heart, you don’t need to be a cross fit hero or a marathon runner. When it comes to heart health, just do what you like, what you’re good at and something that you can sustain. Whether that’s yoga, walking, swimming or dancing around the house. My rule of thumb for exercise is some is better than none and more is better than some.