When people think about exercise, they naturally think about the heart. Whether you are weight training, playing sports, or engaging in aerobic exercise (i.e., running, swimming, cycling), your heart gets a workout. According to numerous studies, exercise and physical activity can not only prevent disease, it may even reverse the effects of various conditions, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
To better explain the relationship between exercise and the heart, TodaysFitnessTrainer.com has enlisted the help of Dr. Yasmine Ali. Board certified in internal medicine and cardiovascular disease, a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and of the American College of Physicians, and the President of Nashville Preventive Cardiology, Dr. Ali is not only qualified for the job, she is incredibly passionate about helping her patients take proactive action against cardiovascular disease. We’re excited to bring Dr. Ali on board as our resident expert on heart health at TodaysFitnessTrainer.com!
1. Studies have shown that regular physical activity and exercise can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. What is the recommended frequency, intensity, and amount of exercise to prevent cardiovascular disease?
Dr. A: Most major national guidelines, including those from the Department of Health and Human Services and the American Heart Association, recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of at least moderate physical activity at least 5 days per week. This can be achieved in 10-minute increments, as long as it adds up to at least 30 minutes by the end of the day. Of course, these are just the minimum recommended physical activity parameters, and studies have shown that staying in motion throughout the course of the day is what is really key to preventing cardiovascular disease. Some studies, for instance, have shown that sitting for longer than 4 hours per day can be worse for your cardiovascular system than smoking cigarettes!
2. What is the best physical activity for someone trying to improve their health and decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease?
Dr. A: The best physical activity is one that the person enjoys and will do on a regular basis. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to be dedicated and committed to it. Having said that, physical activity that involves aerobic exercise (sometimes referred to as “cardio” because of the increase in heart rate) is probably best for long-term physical fitness and prevention of cardiovascular disease. The easiest, simplest physical activity for most people is a walk. It’s that simple. Taking a brisk walk for at least 30 minutes every day will do wonders for your long-term health and longevity.
3. How does a person’s body composition affect their risk of heart disease?
Dr. A: Obesity, especially in the form of centripetal obesity (adiposity around the waistline, which indicates more adipose tissue around the internal organs) is a risk factor for diabetes and for heart disease, increasing the risk of both. And we know that development of diabetes in and of itself is a major risk factor for heart disease.
4. What tools are available to help someone determine their healthy weight and/or body composition range? Can this be done at home?
Dr. A: Absolutely! The easiest tool is the Body Mass Index, or BMI. This only requires you to know your weight and height. Then you can plug those numbers into a BMI calculator, such as the one found at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
5. What are the three (3) most important lifestyle tips you give to someone at risk of cardiovascular disease?
Dr. A: There are many things individuals can do to decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease, but the top three include:
- Don’t smoke. If you do, quit immediately.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes every day (as noted above).
- Make sure your blood pressure is under good control (your personal doctor can help you with this).
6. How does nutrition play a role in preventing cardiovascular disease?
Dr. A: Eating a diet low in saturated fats and avoiding trans fats completely is important to maintain good cardiovascular health. In addition, several studies have upheld the cardiovascular benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet (whole fruits and vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and whole grains, and lean protein from fish or poultry).
7. What are the three (3) most important nutrition tips you give to someone at risk of cardiovascular disease?
Dr. A: Nutrition is an important component to overall heart health. My top three recommendations include:
- Avoid fried foods.
- Avoid red meat.
- Eat a plant-based or Mediterranean diet.
8. For someone who has experienced a cardiovascular event (an incident that has caused damage to the heart muscle), what are you recommendations when it comes to physical activity and exercise?
Dr. A: This completely varies from individual to individual, and should be discussed and determined with your personal doctor. However, almost all conditions are improved by at least some form of physical activity—it is the particular condition that will determine at what intensity and frequency that physical activity will be safe to perform.
9. What are five (5) surprising facts about the heart that you want everyone to know?
Dr. A: The heart is a remarkable organ that can do incredible things.
- The heart pumps 5 – 6 liters of blood, on average, through the body every single minute. That means that, every minute, the heart is pumping the equivalent of nearly 3 two-liter bottles of liquid (think of those 2-liter soda bottles) through your body every single minute!
- The heart is the center of the circulatory system. All of the human body’s circulation comes from and returns to the heart.
- The heart feeds itself first. Although it pumps blood to every other organ in the body (brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, etc.), the very first blood vessels to receive its blood and the nutrients that come with it are the coronary arteries, which feed the heart muscle itself. That is why having a heart attack (also known as “having a coronary” in lay parlance) can be such a catastrophic event—it means the heart’s own blood supply is being cut off due to blockage(s) in the coronary arteries.
- Cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of men AND women not only in the United States, but worldwide.
- It is estimated that 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable!
10. Does a person’s age have an effect on the recommended amount and type of exercise to prevent heart disease? If so, what are the recommendations?
Dr. A: The recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services that I mentioned above are for adults 18 – 65 years of age. More physical activity is recommended for children, and more strengthening/balance/resistance exercises are recommended for adults over 65.
11. What types of exercise should someone avoid if they are at high risk of heart disease?
Dr. A: This should be discussed with your personal doctor. Everyone’s risk is different, and which of the many cardiovascular conditions or risk factors that can contribute to a high level of risk will vary from person to person. For instance, some people are limited in the exercise they are allowed to do because of a congenital heart condition (one they are born with). Others are limited because they have had a major heart attack or heart failure. The recommendations have to be tailored to each individual with the guidance of his or her physician.
Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP, is President of Nashville Preventive Cardiology, PLLC, in Nashville, TN. She is board-certified in internal medicine and cardiovascular disease, as well as in clinical lipidology and nuclear cardiology. She is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and of the American College of Physicians. She graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 2001, and has made it her career’s work to follow her passion for preventing cardiovascular disease and improving heart health for as many people as possible. Each month she will be contributing an educational piece on preventing cardiovascular disease. To learn more about Dr. Ali, visit www.preventivecardio.com.