Maintaining a healthy heart through physical activity has long been shown to prevent heart disease. The heart pumps blood more efficiently through the body as it takes higher levels of oxygen and nutrients through the body. Aerobic activity keeps LDL cholesterol levels down by reducing the build-up of plaque in our arteries. It also helps keep the elasticity of the heart and blood vessels, thus reducing calcification from the aging process. We can add ten to fifteen years to our lifespan by performing physical activity at a moderate intensity compared to sedentary individuals (Physical Activity and Your Heart, 2016).
The guidelines for physical activity from the American Department of Health and Human Services define physical activity as movement that benefits health. It should cause your heart to beat faster and lungs to work harder, making you take in more oxygen for the heart to pump through your body. Planned, structured activity might include walking at a moderate pace, dancing, aerobic exercise, swimming, bicycling, and weight training, for example. Physical activity should be performed for a minimum of ten minutes at a time for the body to come into the fat burn or aerobic phase. Light to moderate activity for adults should be a minimum of 150 minutes a week, around 30 minutes 5 days a week, or vigorous activity for 75 minutes a week, about 20-30 minutes 3 days a week (How to Prevent Heart Disease At Any Age, 2017). Intensity levels for moderate activity on a scale of 1-10 should be between a 5-8, which is approximately 50% to 80% of your maximum heart rate. You should be able to carry on a conversation during the exercise, but not sing (Physical Activity and Your Heart, 2016) These guidelines combined with a healthy diet lower in saturated and trans fats, but including heart healthy fats, will help most individuals prevent or improve cardiovascular health.
Is More Activity Better?
While aerobic activity is great for our cardiovascular system’s function, there is the risk for some individuals to do too much of a good thing. High performance athletes such as marathoners have been known to damage their hearts by working at higher intensity for 900 minutes a week. These athletes compete in extreme sports too often, putting them at risk for heart rhythm disorders. It also increases risk of sudden death if they either have a congenital heart problem such as cardiomyopathy, or have plaque buildup in their arteries with a clot that dislodges, blocking an artery in the heart during intense activity (Farrell, 2012). The troponin levels- cardiac enzymes- of high performance athletes can be at the level of someone experiencing a heart attack, but with enough recovery time after the event, no damage to the heart muscle is found (Can Too Much Extreme Exercise Damage Your Heart?, 2014)The problem comes when the heart does not have adequate time to recover from the physical demand to pump more oxygen. Thankfully, most people do not have to worry about this problem. It is worth considering if you are involved in these types of activities.
Can We Redeem Our Past Bad Habits?
One question which may press on some people’s minds is this: Is it too late to correct the damage we’ve done from eating poorly and sitting around? According to research, with proper exercise people under age 50 can see regression in their coronary artery disease. Those over 50, depending on other health factors, may see stabilization in their heart disease (Lance C. Dalleck, 2013). This means at least three hours and up to six hours per week of cardiovascular exercise can bring at least stabilization of disease while younger individuals may see a regression in the disease process.
How Can Exercise Ward off Heart Damage?
Curiosity in medical groups led researchers to conduct studies on 2,000 people to find out if individuals who either have a high level of cardiovascular conditioning without heart disease, or those who became active after diagnosis of heart disease or a previous heart attack, could reduce their risk of heart damage during a heart attack, also known as cardiac infarction. According to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Henry Ford Health System, they discovered that people with a greater level of physical fitness increased their chances of surviving a first heart attack by around 40 percent compared to their more sedentary counterparts. This showed an eight percent difference in survival rates per whole number increase of MET (metabolic equivalent) score from their treadmill stress tests (Cardiovascular Health, jhu.edu). Physically fit individuals are less likely to have a heart attack, but if they do, they are more likely to survive the first one.
The next logical question would be, if someone already had a first heart attack then becomes more physically active, would they also be able to reduce heart damage from another heart attack? Researchers are not clear if it is possible to avoid or reduce damage to the heart in a second heart attack. They do expect heart function to greatly improve the blood flow of the heart along with a greater strength of the heart muscle and blood vessels. It can increase the quality of life for heart attack survivors.
Aerobic and endurance activity works the heart muscle increasing stroke volume per beat of the heart. The results showed a decrease in plaque build-up in the heart (atherosclerosis) and vasospasms, as well as the stabilization of the electrical impulses of the heart, and strengthening of the coronary arteries (Kenneth E. Powell, 1987). Increased blood flow to the heart could also aid the healing of the heart of damage from a heart attack (McMains, 2016) Performing regular aerobic exercise, heart attack victims may fare better during an attack due to the strength of the heart muscle and it s ability to pump oxygenated blood through the heart at a more efficient rate. It is always best to prevent heart disease, but if you begin regular cardiovascular exercise after disease has already begun, you can increase your survival rate should you experience your first heart attack. Good health practices pay off.
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