Nov. 11, 2003 -- "No pain, no gain" may be good advice if you want bulging biceps or six-pack abs, but you don't have to suffer to strengthen your heart. "Slow and steady" may be a better message when it comes to exercise and heart health, research suggests.
Another message: If your exercise pace feels right to you, it probably is.
In the newly reported study, out-of-shape people who walked at a comfortable pace increased their heart rates enough to improve health and fitness. The findings were presented at the American's Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2003.
"A large segment of the population still believes exercise must be vigorous, demanding, or involve more complicated activities than walking to adequately raise one's heart rate," lead researcher Kyle McInnis, ScD, said in a news release. "This perception of 'no pain, no gain' can discourage people from starting to exercise at all."
Small Effort, Huge Benefit
The study included 72 middle-aged women and 12 middle-aged men who were between 30 and 100 pounds overweight and who did not exercise. Baseline fitness levels were established through treadmill testing.
When the participants came back on a different day, they were asked to walk one mile on the treadmill at a "brisk but comfortable" pace. The average time to complete the mile was 18.7 minutes, for an average speed of 3.2 miles per hour.
During the self-paced walk, all of the participants achieved the recommended level of exercise intensity based on their previous heart measurements. Overall, 13 people exercised in the moderate range (55%-69% of their maximum heart rate); 58 at hard intensity (70%-89% of their maximum heart rate); and 13 at very hard intensity (90%-100% of their maximum heart rate). Maximum heart rate is calculated as 220 minus age.
The findings offer more proof that even moderate-intensity exercises such as walking can improve heart health, even in people at very high risk for heart disease such as obese individuals, McInnis says.
"People who are at what we consider to be an unhealthy weight but are quite physically active actually enjoy many health and fitness benefits," he tells WebMD. "Likewise, people who maintain a healthy weight but are physically inactive may have a high risk for vascular [blood vessel] and other diseases."
Going in the Wrong Direction
The American Heart Association, the CDC, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend a minimum of half an hour a day of moderate-intensity physical exercise five or more days of the week, but McInnis says many people are confused about what that means. It doesn't mean, he says, that they have to pack up and go to the gym each day to work out. Rather, they can incorporate the activity into their normal routine, such as taking three brisk 10-minute walks a day.
American Heart Association spokesman Richard Stein, MD, says people seem to be getting the message that they need to exercise more, but modern lifestyles make that increasingly difficult.
"As a society we are becoming increasingly obese and increasingly sedentary," he tells WebMD. "We are going in the wrong direction, and unless we make efforts to add more recreational activities into our daily lives we are going to be less healthy than our parents and grandparents were."