Likely the result of the aerobics craze of the 70s and 80s, people most associate exercising for heart health with high-intensity, heart-pounding, sweat-inducing cardio sessions. While Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons swept the nation with their fitness fads, studies have now revealed that there may be additional activity to better support and improve heart health.

How Does Exercise Alter the Heart?

Regular exercise contributes to a number of physiological changes to the heart over time. Individuals who exercise have lower resting heart rates, may have lower resting blood pressure, and more efficiently utilize the oxygen received during each breath. Overall, the heart becomes more efficient in its role of circulating blood throughout the body.

While these changes may take weeks, months, or even years to occur, there are benefits to be gained from just one day of exercise. One workout can lead to increased energy levels, mood enhancement, and an increase in daily calories burned.

Aerobic Training and Strength Training

Aerobic training—workouts that strengthen your heart and lungs—was long thought to be the gold standard of exercise. Fitness facilities would be packed with people running on treadmills, walking the stair master, or using an elliptical. All great examples of aerobic exercises, they may only be completing half of the equation to improved heart health. Combined with strength training, individuals cannot only improve their aerobic health, but also reduce body fat which can be a risk factor for heart disease.

For your next workout, try pairing any aerobic activity, such as walking on a treadmill, with some strength exercises push-ups, lunges, or squats for an even greater health benefit than just aerobic activity on its own.

How Much Should You Exercise?

For those looking to improve their heart health, starting small is likely to lead to sustained lifestyle changes. Incorporating more physical activity into everyday routines, such as parking in a spot further from the grocery store entrance, is a great way to begin the journey to improved health. Starting off with too much, too soon, will likely lead to a decline in motivation and potential for injury.

Even for individuals engaged in regular exercise, increasing physical activity throughout the day is a great way to stay consistent in improving your health. But this still leaves the question, how much exercise should you be doing? A generally accepted recommendation suggests setting a goal of 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per week.

Some activities to choose from include walking briskly, leisurely riding a bicycle, or choosing to take the stairs at work in place of the elevator. If you are interested in more vigorous exercise such as running, swimming, or other high-intensity workouts, decrease the overall time per week to a recommended time of 75 total minutes.

For those who go far beyond the recommended weekly amount of exercise, studies show that there may not be a significant amount of return in terms of physiological health benefits. The stress of prolonged intense exercise well beyond the recommended amount may lead to the release of a hormone called cortisol, which could ultimately be damaging and lead to weight gain. Shoot for 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity such as walking or running, combined with strength exercises, 3-5 times per week for best results.

Ryan Grey is Assistant Director of Fitness at the Greater Burlington YMCA. He holds a BS in Exercise Science from the University of Vermont and is a certified personal trainer. To learn more about fitness, including personal training, at the YMCA, contact Ryan at rgrey@gbymca.org or call 802-652-8183.

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