The Baby Boomer Heart: Healing Fitness

When it comes to protecting your heart, fitness plays a key role.

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on November 01, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

If you're convinced that working out is only for the young and buff, there's something you should know. Mounting research shows that exercise does more than give you a better shape. It's a key way of protecting your heart.

Fitness is absolutely the most powerful predictor of deaths from heart disease and other causes, says Rita Redberg, MD, a cardiologist from the University of California at San Francisco, and the science advisor for the American Heart Association Choose to Move program.

Indeed, Redberg says folks who exercise routinely have up to a 50% lower risk of having a heart attack or chest pain, and they have a lower risk of other diseases as well.

"And, most importantly, people who exercise simply live longer than people who don't," says Redberg. This, she says, is particularly true for women.

Likewise, cardiologist Helene Glassberg, MD, tells WebMD that not being physically fit is the single most important risk factor for heart disease.

"Even if you smoke, your risks are lower if you exercise -- lower than a nonsmoker who does not exercise," says Glassberg, director of The Preventive Cardiology and Lipid Center at the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

In fact, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that when it comes to protection from heart disease, being fit might be more important than being thin, particularly for women. In a joint project between the University of Florida and Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, research on some 900 women revealed that those who were at least moderately active were less likely to develop heart disease and related illnesses than women who were less active -- regardless of their weight.

And not working out -- at least to your full capacity -- may be extremely damaging. In a study just released by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, research conducted on nearly 6,000 seemingly healthy women found that those who scored less than 85% of their target fitness rate on a treadmill stress test were twice as likely to develop serious heart disease and related death.

Researchers say this study offers the first clear picture of a woman's fitness-related health risks - and they are high.

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.

The Minimum Exercise You Need

Recent U.S. government guidelines recommended 60 minutes of physical activity daily to prevent weight gain. For those of us who have lost weight, they recommend 60 to 90 minutes a day to keep the pounds off.

But don't let that scare you. Many cardiologists in the "trenches" say you can improve your heart health with less exercise.

"I think it's a little excessive to expect 60 to 90 minutes -- even if it is a healthy goal; I'm happy if I can get a patient to exercise 30 minutes three to five times a week. And in truth, mortality studies suggest that this really is adequate," says Boyd Lyles, MD, medical director of the Heart Health and Wellness Center in Dallas, Texas.

What's more, says Lyles, splitting those 30 workout minutes into three 10-minute or two 15-minute segments works just as well.

Recently a second study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise compared the benefits from 30 minutes of brisk walking with those from 10-minute walks several times a day. The result: Both the long and the short walks improved aerobic fitness equally well in previously sedentary people. And they proved equally effective in decreasing other risk factors for heart disease, including body fat and blood pressure.

"The point is to get up off the sofa and move -- because it's the moving that reaps the benefits," he says.

Getting Started Getting Fit

If you're like most adults, it could be 10, 20, or even 30 years since you participated in any kind of meaningful physical activity. And if that is the case, doctors say the last thing you want to do is put on the football jersey and head for a weekend game of touch football with your nephew and his college buddies. Likewise ladies, don't dust off those old aerobic tapes and expect to go full tilt on day one.

Start slow and build up gradually.

"You don't have to have any kind of stress test. You just start walking more, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking your car farther rather than closer to the store entry. Just begin by incorporating more movement in your normal life," says Siegel.

If you do feel discomfort while walking -- or doing any physical activity -- and feel better when you rest, talk to your doctor about some routine testing to assess your current heart health. Your doctor can also work with you on an activity program that you can continue safely and effectively.

Remember, it's never too late to incorporate fitness into your life -- no matter your age.

In fact, a few years ago doctors from the Ann Arbor VA Hospital in Michigan looked at a group of men and women 80 years old and older. They found all yielded important health benefits -- including improving the body's ability to use oxygen and reducing blood pressure -- by simply walking on a treadmill or riding an exercise bike for 20 minutes twice a week.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Rita Redberg, MD, cardiologist, University of California at San Francisco, science advisor, American Heart Association Choose To Move program. Helene Glassberg, MD, FACC, director, Preventive Cardiology and Lipid Center, Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia. Stephen Siegel, MD, cardiologist; and clinical assistant professor, NYU School of Medicine, New York City. Boyd Lyles, MD, medical director, Heart Health and Wellness Center, Dallas. Wessel, TR, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2004; vol 10: pg 292. Rush University Medical Center Study release, Aug. 3, 2005. Dunn, A, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, July 1998; vol 30. Murphy, Marie, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, September 2002; vol 34. Manson JE, New England Journal of Medicine; vol 341: pp 650-658, 1999. Vaitkevicius, P, Journal of the American Geriatric Society, December 2002; vol 50: Pg 2009.

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