Cardiovascular Fitness – A Powerful Predictor of Health and Longevity

running heart graphicGuest Blogger: Janet Huehls, RCEP, CHWC, registered clinical exercise physiologist and certified health and wellness coach, UMass Memorial Weight Center; author, Keep Moving blog. 

If you’re looking to lower your risk of heart disease as you age, there is great news ahead! Research indicates you can lower your risk by improving your cardiovascular fitness, even as you age. Cardiovascular fitness is a powerful predictor of health and longevity, so powerful it can reduce the risks from having other risk factors. That is powerful stuff!

Researchers comparing people from one yearly medical exam to another found that when fitness level was improved, the risk of having a heart event or dying from a heart event was reduced. People whose fitness level was lower year-to-year had a greater risk for heart issues. The even better news is that this was seen even when people still had risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and being overweight. Researchers found that year-to-year changes in fitness were better at predicting future risk of developing risk factors like high blood pressure or diabetes. Even people who already had heart disease or heart failure but preserved their fitness level year-to-year had a better survival rate.

But wait! There is more great news! You may not even need to wait until you improve your cardiovascular fitness to enjoy those protections. There may be a certain amount of instant “cardio-protection” from your first bout of cardiovascular exercise. A recent review in the JAMA Cardiology found that after one bout of exercise, changes in the cardiovascular system may be providing protection from a heart attack, or at least reduce the severity of a heart attack for about three to 24 hours after.

So just the act of exercising might provide protection for your heart. Doing it regularly means you will improve your fitness level which provides protection year-to-year. Let’s look at how simple it can be to enjoy these benefits.

What is cardiovascular exercise? This is simply moving continuously for an extended period. This can be any form of movement that uses as much of your body as you can in a way that allows you to move continuously, such as walking, dancing, swimming or biking.

Don’t I need to get my heart rate up? The equations used to predict what your heart rate should be with exercise have a 12-beat error rate. That means your heart rate could need to be much higher or lower than the machine tells you. Plus, many medications impact heart rate. So, using heart rate really isn’t the best tool for most people.

What can I use instead? Breathing level is a better tool for most people to tell if they are working hard enough or too hard. Your breathing level gives you information about how your whole cardiovascular system is doing with exercise, not just your heart.

How do I know how hard to exercise? Move at a level that increases your breathing to a moderate to comfortable challenge level. If breathing feels uncomfortable, slow down until breathing is in the comfortable range. This will allow you to continue to move without having to stop to catch your breath, and that continuous movement is what gives the benefit.

How long do I need to move for? You should move 10 to 30 minutes.

How often should I do cardio? If you can only do shorter bouts of 10 minutes, do them more frequently, such as gradually increasing to three times a day on most days of the week. If you can do longer bouts of 30 minutes, do cardio three or more days a week.

If you are looking to be heart healthy, doing cardiovascular exercise regularly is one of your most powerful ways to take care of your heart and your whole body as you age.

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