This month’s column on heart disease is timely because February is National Heart Health Month. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. One out of every two Americans will die from something wrong with their heart.
The heart is the first organ to form in the womb. It is also one of the last to shut down. Your heart works hard pumping blood, beating over 100,000 times a day. You probably don’t think about your heartbeat very often; most of us take it for granted. But luckily for you, your heart continues to carry out the extremely vital job of pumping blood throughout your body whether you’re thinking about it or not. However, that doesn’t mean that you are off the hook when it comes to taking care of your heart. If you choose lifestyle behaviors that hurt your heart, such as smoking or eating a diet high in saturated fat, changes will occur in your heart that will make the task of moving blood around a lot more difficult. And once the heart is damaged, it can’t completely heal.
Your heart is a large muscular organ that needs daily activity to keep it running in peak condition. Being inactive is one of the top four risk factors for heart disease, along with smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. How does being physically active protect your heart? The benefits are numerous, but here are the “Big Four.”
1—Exercise makes the heart muscle stronger. You know that your dominant arm and hand are stronger than your non-dominant. I’m right handed, so my right arm is much stronger than my left because I use it all the time. The same thing is true for your heart. When you exercise, you strengthen the heart muscle. This is important because a strong heart can pump a greater volume of blood with less effort, so you get less wear and tear on the heart. You’ll also get a longer resting period between heartbeats.
2—Regular exercise helps keep arteries elastic (flexible). Arteries, like our bodies, become stiffer with age. When arteries become stiff and narrow, the result is high blood pressure. High blood pressure is not just a risk factor for heart disease, but also for stroke. Regular exercise helps arteries dilate (open up), improving blood flow.
3—Exercise improves your cholesterol levels. Exercise stimulates enzymes that help move LDL (bad) cholesterol to the liver, where it can be converted into bile or excreted. The more you move, the more LDL goes out of your body.
4—Exercise may give you a natural bypass. This is huge. Please commit this to memory. When plaque narrows an artery that feeds the heart, the body responds by building up other tiny blood vessels in the heart. Those collateral vessels grow more muscular and become more connected as they begin to reroute and take on more of the work. Scientists now realize that exercise helps those collateral blood vessels elongate, widen, and form new connections. Basically what you are doing is rerouting your blood through the open vessels when the bigger arteries are closed off. It’s sort of like when you are driving and come to a detour. You can’t go the way you planned, so you make a series of twists and turns until you can get back on the road to your destination. Numerous studies show that exercise boosts those blood vessels; in essence giving you a natural bypass. However, for that to occur, you need to do more than a little bit of exercise. For example, you will need to walk briskly for 20-30 minutes several times a week.
Bottom Line? Being physically active helps your heart. Valentines’ Day may be over, but it’s never too late to give yourself a belated gift: 150 minutes of physical activity every week. Your heart will thank you.
Written by: Donna Green, Extension Educator, Family & Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension.
Reviewed by: Liz Smith, M.S., R.D., L.D. Ohio State University Extension.