By James M. Rippe

Regular physical activity fosters good health and helps prevent heart disease and other chronic conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes. Here are some of the specific benefits physical activity offers for your heart health.

Fostering primary prevention of heart disease

Even if you feel fine and fit and have no risk factors for heart disease, you can experience several positive changes after just two or three months of regular physical activity:

  • Tasks that previously made you short of breath are easier to perform.

  • Your heart rate when you’re resting is lower. Because a more efficient heart pumps more blood on each beat, it requires fewer beats per minute to supply your body with oxygen when you’re simply sitting still.

  • Your heart is a stronger muscle. During a lifetime of moderate physical activity, the heart, as a muscle, maintains better condition than the heart of someone who remains or becomes inactive.

  • The coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, are more likely to stay large and relatively clean in individuals who exercise on a regular basis. Remember that clean coronary arteries prevent heart attacks.

Reducing risk factors for heart disease

Regular physical activity can help you reduce many risk factors for heart disease. Reducing risks makes it much less likely that you will develop heart disease. Regular activity helps you do the following:

  • Manage high blood pressure (hypertension): Regular physical activity not only reduces the risk of developing hypertension, but it also is an effective treatment for hypertension. (See Chapter 8 for details.)

  • Improve unhealthy cholesterol levels: Physical activity can help raise HDL cholesterol and may help lower LDL cholesterol, particularly in people who have been inactive and have poor diets when they begin. Physical activity also appears to help increase the size of lipoproteins carrying cholesterol; larger particles are not as dangerous as small, dense LDL particles.

  • Prevent diabetes: Physical activity also is a great way of lowering your risk of diabetes. Studies show that physically active people reduce their risks of adult onset diabetes between 24 percent and 100 percent.

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight: People who are inactive are much more likely to gain weight during their lives than people who are physically active. The expenditure of calories on a regular basis also tends to preserve lean muscle mass and make you capable of increased levels of functioning throughout your life.

  • Improve mental and emotional states: Numerous studies show that physical activity reduces anxiety and tension and can improve mood and decrease the likelihood of depression.

  • Maintain functional fitness as you get older. Physical activity has been shown to benefit older adults, too. If you reach the age of 65, you have an 80 percent chance of reaching the age of 80! Reducing your risk of heart disease and contributing risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and keeping the heart and muscles in tune and able to perform activities of daily living is particularly important for older individuals.

Benefiting secondary prevention of heart disease

Even if you have been diagnosed with atherosclerosis or had cardiac symptoms or a heart event, physical activity is an important part of your treatment regimen. It helps you do the following:

  • Reduce the risks of coronary heart disease (CHD): Physical activity programs can help people who experience angina or who have been diagnosed with CHD increase their ability to perform activities of daily life and lower their risk of having additional problems.

  • Reduce the risk of another heart attack or heart event: If you’ve suffered a heart attack, a supervised cardiac rehabilitation program under the guidance of a trained cardiologist can help strengthen your damaged heart and help it function more efficiently. A fit body requires less work from the heart. Physical activity also helps prevent a second heart event by helping you reduce risk factors.

  • Increasing the efficiency of your muscles so they require less blood flow from the heart: In the normal heart, approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of the blood that is returned to the heart is pumped out with each beat.

    After a heart attack or in the case of heart failure, the heart may pump much less blood out with each beat. Appropriate lower-intensity physical activity can help you to increase the efficiency of your muscles so that they make lower demands on the heart.