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Heart Happy

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Your heart must be challenged on a regular basis. It is a muscle and, like any other muscle in the body, the more it is used, the stronger it becomes. And, also like other muscles, a stronger heart will also be more efficient at doing its job.

Place your hand in the middle of your chest. Sit very still and be quiet. Can you feel that? The steady yet tireless beat of your heart. From the moment you are born until your last moment here on earth, your heart will work continuously without ever pausing to rest. On average, it will beat more than two-and-a-half billion times over the course of your life. It is an important and intricate piece of the human puzzle yet often ignored, neglected and taken for granted. Perhaps it is time to take notice of this vital part of your machinery and learn how to keep it in optimal working condition.

Use It or Lose It

Your heart must be challenged on a regular basis. It is a muscle and, like any other muscle in the body, the more it is used, the stronger it becomes. And, also like other muscles, a stronger heart will also be more efficient at doing its job. Cardiovascular exercise or aerobic exercise (this does not mean aerobic classes only) is the best type of movement to ensure you keep your heart healthy and strong. This type of activity is rhythmic, repetitive, uses large muscle groups such as those in your legs, and challenges the circulatory system by increasing blood flow to the muscles. Some examples include walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, stair-climbing, cross-country skiing, hiking and inline skating.

A Quick Anatomy Lesson

When your body is asked to move for an extended period of time, your muscles require large amounts of oxygen to keep them moving. Your blood carries the oxygen, brought in by your lungs, to the moving muscles. Your heart is the "motor" behind this system. As the demand for oxygen increases, it beats faster to circulate blood more quickly. When you frequently challenge your heart in this way, you increase cardiovascular fitness and build a stronger, more efficient heart.

It is recommended to engage in cardiovascular exercise daily or almost daily for 20 to 60 minutes in total. The debate continues as to whether this amount of time needs to be done all at once or if it can be broken into shorter intervals and added up over the course of the day. Recent research shows that smaller increments of activity, such as three 10-minute bouts, has great benefit in the grand scheme of things and can help to decrease the chances of heart disease and related health conditions. It is important to gear your cardiovascular routine toward what is ideal for your lifestyle, time availability and personal abilities. If you are unable to move for 30 minutes at a time, then smaller amounts of time would be acceptable for you. This is one of those areas in life where a little bit is better than nothing at all.

Keep Things Well-Rounded

Cardiovascular exercise is a very important form of movement to promote heart health, but it shouldn't be your only form of exercise. A healthy heart is ideal, but what good is it if the rest of the "machine" isn't in optimal working order? To keep things well rounded, your fitness strategy should also include strength-building exercises and movements that promote flexibility. When your muscles are strong, you are able to push, pull and carry with greater ease. You are also less likely to become over-tired or injured when performing tasks of daily living such as getting out of a car, rising from the floor or reaching under furniture for a lost treasure.

The Big Picture

Exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise, plays an important role in the prevention, as well as the rehabilitation, of many forms of heart disease. Many of the risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol, can be battled or even wiped out by regular physical activity. However, it is important to note that there is a collage of factors intertwined in maintaining heart health. Good nutrition, regular physical activity and emotional well-being are all components of a plan leading to a strong and healthy heart. By incorporating healthy choices from each of these areas, you are bound to come up with a winning combination--one that will keep your heart happy and the rest of you, too!

Heart-Smart Fitness

If you are at risk for, or have been diagnosed with, heart disease and wish to begin a therapeutic exercise program, you should first consult with your health-care provider to formulate a plan that is safe and of benefit to your unique needs. Most people can safely start a home-based exercise program on their own, but in some cases, supervision and more in-depth direction is required. For example, if you have arrhythmia, exercise is still highly recommended, but you need to know that you should stop if any symptoms occur. Also, keep your medications close by as a precaution. Go at your own pace and do only what is comfortable. Here are a few other suggestions.

Walking

Moving those legs is usually the first and foremost suggestion for anyone with heart conditions, including those recuperating after heart surgery. If you have other health considerations that make walking difficult, try swimming or aqua classes. The amount of walking will depend on you. A "start off slow and build up gradually" approach is best. Then, using small increments, time and speed can be increased as you become fitter.

In addition to walking, any cardiovascular activity cycling, swimming, dancing, stair-climbing, cross-country skiing and hiking, to name a few is highly recommended to fight off heart disease and to help patients who have it (depending on their level of health). Cardiovascular activity will help keep cholesterol and blood pressure levels down, maintain body weight (or decrease it) and decrease stress all of which go hand-in-hand with heart disease.

Resistance Training

The best way for heart patients to start a strength-training program is with light weights (lighter weights, higher number of repetitions). Movements using body weight only are also good, including leg squats, abdominal crunches (on the floor or bed), lateral raises for the shoulders, bicep curls and tricep kickbacks. Push-ups are great for an almost full upper-body strengthening movement. These can be done on the floor from the feet or the knees, the latter being easier, or against a wall.

Keep Breathing

One point to keep in mind: it is very important to breathe continuously while exercising. Most tend to hold their breath while strength training and/or stretching. I have a lady in one of my fitness classes who holds her breath during cardio--a habit I encourage her to break! Anyway, breathing is even more important for someone with heart considerations because holding one's breath during exercise can cause an increase in blood pressure.

Heed Your Body's Signals

Regardless of your fitness program or level, listen to and follow the signals your body sends you. Stop or take breaks as needed, and follow the advice of your health-care professional for best results.

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