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How Exercise Helps Your Heart

There are number of obvious heart-healthy benefits to exercise. Usually you will lose weight, or maintain a lower weight. You'll also usually lower blood pressure and cholesterol. But experts say exercise directly affects the heart by keeping blood vessels strong and healthy. Exercise directly improves the blood vessels' ability to dilate and increase blood flow, says Glassberg. In addition, she says, regular workouts offer these heart-healthy benefits:

Anticlotting and anti inflammatory effects that lower your risk of a heart attack.

  • Reducing heart rate and blood pressure, which reduces demand on the heart.
  • If you already have heart disease, exercise can help normalize your heart rhythm as well as helping your body expand smaller vessels to help keep blood flowing around an area that is clogged.

"Exercise is the single best prescription you can give yourself -- there is no prescription I can write that will promise a 40% reduction in events of death -- but regular exercise can do that," says Glassberg.

Cardiologist Stephen Siegel, MD, agrees: "If you want to age successfully, if you want to be one of those vigorous older folks that you look at and say 'wow' -- then exercise is going to get you there because it impacts not only your heart health, but your total health," he says. Siegel is an associate clinical professor at New York University Medical Center in New York City.

The Simple Way to Fitness

If you think you need a gym membership to get the heart-health benefits of exercise, nothing could be farther from the truth.

"The truth is that the greatest decrease in [heart disease] occurs for those who just take themselves out of the sedentary category with simple movement. In fact, just going from sedentary to moderately active gives you the greatest reduction in your risks," says Glassberg.

Indeed, Redberg says you don't have to do any type of formal routine to reap the benefits.

"You don't have to join a gym, buy a treadmill, or wear a heart monitor and count your heart beats," she says. "You just have to move your body with some regularity at a moderate intensity: a brisk walk, gardening, cycling, walking up steps. It all counts towards protecting your heart."

In a six-month study of sedentary baby boomers published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise researchers found that a lifestyle-based physical activity program worked just as well as a rigorous exercise program when it came to burning calories and increasing cardio respiratory fitness. People who were previously inactive showed the most benefits.

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