When it comes to lowering your risk for heart disease or heart attack, being physically active is as important as eating a healthy diet and not smoking.
“Regular exercise is one of the single most powerful proactive things people can do to protect themselves against heart disease,” says Richard Stein, M.D., a preventive cardiology specialist in New York City and a spokesman for the American Heart Association. “Exercise helps your heart by lowering your risk for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides and helping you lose excess weight, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.”
In addition, exercise by itself lowers the risk for heart disease, says Dr. Stein. A person who has high cholesterol or a family history of heart disease or is a smoker, but who exercises enough, can possibly cut his or her risk for heart disease in half. That's true even with those risk factors in place.
Fortunately, you don’t have to run marathons to help your heart. Activities such as brisk walking, climbing stairs, gardening, yard work, and moderate to heavy housework all can help your heart. What's critical is that you get about 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
“Ideally, you would work your way up to one hour a day of moderate-intensity activity, but the fact is, anything other than being sedentary is helpful,” says Dr. Stein.
If you are healthy, you probably can do moderate exercise without seeing a doctor. Start out slowly and gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts.
See your doctor
If you are middle-aged or older, inactive, and at high risk for heart disease, you should get your doctor's OK. You should also check with your doctor if you have a chronic condition such as diabetes.
“The important thing is to find activities you enjoy, because you’re more likely to stick with them,” says Dr. Stein.
Here are some ideas:
For short trips, walk or bike.
Work in the garden or mow the grass. Rake leaves, prune, dig, and pick up trash.
Go for a short walk before breakfast, after dinner, or both. Start with five to 10 minutes and work up to 30.
Join a fitness center near your job. Exercise before or after work or drop by at noon.
“In addition to exercise’s dramatic effect on your risk for heart disease, it also can decrease your stress, improve your sleep, and make everything you do in your life, from running to catching a train to carrying your groceries, easier,” says Dr. Stein. “In short, it makes you a healthier person all the way around.”