Exercise and Heart Health: A Love Story
If I told you a single intervention has been shown to have positive impacts on longevity, heart health, mental health, body composition, energy levels, and sleep, then you’d likely think I was selling you a bill of goods.
The truth is, while there is no single food or supplement that can provide such a wide variety of benefits, research has shown that consistent and solid exercise is positively tied to all these.
One of the most significant impacts of exercise can be observed when the link between physical activity and optimal heart health is examined. Yet only an estimated 23 percent of adults meet the recommended activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle strengthening activity.1
While most individuals can readily identify that exercise leads to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight and strengthening muscles, including the heart muscle, they don’t realize a lot more is going on under the hood.
At the systemic level, regular exercise can lead to lower blood pressure,2 an optimal cholesterol level,3 and improved blood sugar regulation.4
Exercise helps regulate how your blood vessels expand and dilate. Optimal blood vessel elasticity enables the body to more effectively deliver blood flow to the areas of the body that need it most, in addition to supporting optimal blood pressure. Essentially, exercise adds more lanes to the freeway to deliver fuel, nutrients, and oxygen.
Emerging research indicates that in addition to increasing the elasticity of blood vessels, regular exercise causes changes to the brain stem that positively affect how the nervous system responds to arrhythmias, a leading cause of sudden death cardiac events.5
Types of exercise
Aerobic exercise, often known as cardio, is defined as an activity using large muscle groups that can be maintained continuously and fueled aerobically (with oxygen), allowing the body to pull energy from amino acids, carbohydrates, and fatty acids.6
- Examples include jogging, hiking, endurance cycling, and endurance swimming.
Anaerobic exercise, often known as strength training, is defined as intense physical activity of very short duration fueled by energy sources within the muscles that do not require oxygen.6
- Examples include weightlifting, sprinting, and interval training.
Balance and flexibility training, often known as core training, is low intensity activity that supports muscle health, function, and body stability, thus allowing the body to move more effectively and train while decreasing the risk of injury.
- Examples include yoga, pilates, and tai chi.
How much exercise is recommended?
In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services published their Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans1 with the following highlights:
For substantial health benefits adults should:
- Aim for 150-500 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of the two per week.
- Additional benefits are gained when the exercise exceeds 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week.
- Engage in moderate or vigorous muscle strengthening exercises that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week for additional benefits.
Children and adolescents, ages 6-17
For substantial health benefits children should:
- Engage in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.
- A majority of the 60 minutes should be moderately intense aerobic activity, with vigorous activity at least three days per week.
- Engage in muscle strengthening physical activity at least three days per week.
- Participate in bone strengthening physical activity at least three days per week.
Can you exercise too little or too much?
When it comes to the impact of exercise on health, we are often asked what is the minimum amount that is beneficial and is there a point where extended exercise stops being helpful? We know, especially in previously inactive populations, that even minimal activity produces positive outcomes.
For example, running just 5-10 minutes per day at slow speeds by previously inactive U.S. adults contributed to decreased cardiovascular disease risk,7 while only 15 minutes of daily exercise in Asian adult populations was shown to have a 14-percent reduction in mortality risk.8
When adequate attention is given to providing sufficient calories and nutrients to fuel training and recovery, there appears to be no risk in exercise exceeding the recommended guidelines.
A review of 11 years of literature revealed that individuals who performed the recommended minimum amount of exercise 1-2 times weekly had a 31-percent lower mortality risk than non-exercisers. When performing 2-3 times the minimum recommended exercise, a 37-percent lower mortality risk was observed.
The study continued assessing exercise loads up to 10 times the recommended minimum and found a 31-percent lower risk – surprisingly the same as those performing just 1-2 times the suggested activity. At three times the recommended amount, the highest reduction in mortality risk of 39 percent was observed.9
As always, when significantly increasing your physical activity, it is recommended that you consult your healthcare professional or sports medicine team member.
Exercise is one half of a targeted approach toward gaining optimal heart health that works best when paired with changes to diet and nutrient intake. A focus on a plan that includes heart-healthy foods, spices, and nutrients, and that promotes healthy cholesterol levels builds on the benefits of exercise to optimize your heart health.
- Piercy K, Troiano R, Ballard R, et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA 2018;320(19):2020-2028.
- Padilla J, Wallace J, Park S. Accumulation of physical activity reduces blood pressure in pre- and hypertension. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2005;37(8):1264-1275.
- Kraus W, Houmard J, Duscha B, et al. Effects of the amount and intensity of exercise on plasma lipoproteins. N Engl J Med 2002;347(19):1483-1492.
- Colberg S, Hernandez M, Shahzad F. Blood glucose responses to type, intensity, duration, and timing of exercise. Diabetes Care 2013;36(10):e177.
- Fiuza-Luces C, Santos-Lozano A, Joyner M, et al. Exercise benefits in cardiovascular disease: beyond attenuation of traditional risk factors. Nat Rev Cardiol 2018;15(12):731-743.
- Ferguson B. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 9th Ed. 2014. J Can Chiropr Assoc 2014;58(3):328.
- Wen C, Wai J, Tsai M, et al. Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Lancet 2011;378(9798):1244-1253.
- Lee D, Pate R, Lavie C, et al. Leisure time running reduces all-cause and cardiovascular mortality risk. J Am Coll Cardiol 2014;64(5):472-481.
- Arem H, Moore S, Patel A, et al. Leisure time physical activity and mortality: a detailed pooled analysis of the dose-response relationship. JAMA Intern Med 2015;175(6):959-967.