Jennifer Turpin Stanfield by Jennifer Turpin Stanfield
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Heart disease is leading cause of death and disability in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017). While you cannot control some risk factors—such as family history, sex or age—there are several lifestyle behaviors that you can adopt to reduce your risk. Physical activity has numerous health benefits, and it is one of the best things you can do to improve your heart health. You’ve probably heard that a comprehensive exercise program should include three types of training: aerobic exercise, resistance exercise and activities to improve flexibility. But what role does each type of exercise play in reducing your risk of heart disease? Read on to learn why all three are important in building a healthier heart.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on blood pressure. If your blood pressure is already at a healthy level—less than 120/80 mm Hg—aerobic exercise can help to prevent it from increasing as you age. Furthermore, aerobic exercise can lower systolic blood pressure by 4-9 points in people with elevated blood pressure (Mayo Clinic, 2019). This is as effective as some blood pressure medications, but it is important to recognize that it can take several weeks and sometimes even months for exercise to influence blood pressure. If you take blood pressure medication, continue to take it regularly and as prescribed by your doctor. Your doctor can make adjustments to your medication dosage if necessary. Keep in mind that the blood pressure-lowering effects of exercise are lost if the exercise program is abandoned, so consistency is key.

In addition to having a positive effect on blood pressure, aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce heart failure risk. Sedentary people are at an increased risk of heart failure due to the heart muscle stiffening and shrinking during late-middle age.  But here is some good news: A recent study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation found that regular aerobic exercise performed a minimum of four days a week could reverse cardiac stiffness and improve the body’s oxygen carrying capacity (Howden et al., 2018). While any amount of aerobic exercise is beneficial, moderate-to-high intensity exercise performed a minimum of 150 minutes a week is necessary to achieve optimum heart-health benefits.

Resistance Exercise

Fewer than 20% of Americans meet the guidelines for resistance exercise (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2018), but lifting weights might be just as important as cardio in helping to reduce your risk of heart disease. A recently published study showed that regular resistance exercise can reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke by up to 70%. This study is among the first to show that the cardiovascular benefits of resistance exercise may be independent of other exercise behaviors, as the effect was observed even among participants who did not meet the guidelines for aerobic exercise. Resistance training also reduces the risk of hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol) and improves body composition. Researchers believe that these two mechanisms may be the key players in the relationship between resistance exercise and heart disease risk (Liu et al., 2018).

Yoga and Other Forms of Mind-body Exercise

Today, more than 36 million Americans practice yoga (Ipsos Public Affairs, 2016). Improved flexibility, stress relief and muscle relaxation are among the most commonly reported reasons for practicing, but emerging research suggests that heart health may soon be added to this list. A meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology revealed that yoga may be an effective form of exercise for improving cardio-metabolic health (Chu et al, 2014). The analysis included 32 randomized control trials and showed that asana-based (physical exercises) yoga practices improved body mass index, systolic blood pressure, and both LDL and HDL cholesterol.

Yoga and Other Forms of Mind-body Exercise

Today, more than 36 million Americans practice yoga (Ipsos Public Affairs, 2016). Improved flexibility, stress relief and muscle relaxation are among the most commonly reported reasons for practicing, but emerging research suggests that heart health may soon be added to this list. A meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology revealed that yoga may be an effective form of exercise for improving cardio-metabolic health (Chu et al, 2014). The analysis included 32 randomized control trials and showed that asana-based (physical exercises) yoga practices improved body mass index, systolic blood pressure, and both LDL and HDL cholesterol.

February is National Heart Month. Visit heart.org to learn more about what you can do to improve your heart health.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017). Heart Disease Facts.

Chu, P. et al. (2016). The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 23, 3, 291–307.

Howden, E.J. et al. (2018). Reversing the cardiac effects of sedentary aging in middle age—A randomized controlled trial. Circulation, 137, 15, 1549-1560.

Ipsos Public Affairs. (2016). 2016 Yoga in America Study.

Liu, Y. et al. (2018). Associations of resistance exercise with cardiovascular disease, morbidity and mortality. Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001822.

Mayo Clinic (2019). Exercise: A drug free approach to lowering high blood pressure.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (2018). 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report.

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