Exercise For Heart Health

By Marianne Morano, M.S., ACSM, CWC

February is American Heart month and as such this article serves as a guide to ensure proper heart health via regular exercise.

Heart disease is the #1 killer of women causing 1 in 3 deaths per year.  44 million women are affected by heart disease with fewer survivors than men after an initial heart attack.  These statistics are alarming yet only 56% of women in a major study by the American Heart Association identified heart disease as the leading cause of death.  80% of heart disease may be prevented by lifestyle changes.

What Is Coronary Heart Disease?

Heart disease affects the blood vessels and cardiovascular system.  A condition known as atherosclerosis develops when plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries.  This narrowing of arteries makes it difficult for blood to flow.  If a blood clot forms, it can stop the blood flow causing a heart attack or stroke.

This is only one form, and heart disease may appear in other forms: heart failure, heart valve malfunction and arrhythmia or abnormal heart rhythm, for example.

What Are The Signs & Symptoms?

The symptoms of a heart attack are not limited to the typical signs of chest pain and shortness of breath.  Particularly in women, sweating, pressure, fullness, nausea and jaw pain may occur.  Other symptoms include back, neck, arm, or stomach pain in addition to lightheadedness.  Many women dismiss symptoms as the flu, stress or simply having a bad day.  If you experience any of the warning signs pay attention to your body’s whispers so you never have to here it scream.  Ignoring signs and symptoms may be a matter of life and death, as the first seconds during a heart attack are critical with regard to life saving techniques.

How To Prevent Coronary Heart Disease?

Changing lifestyles is the key to preventing heart disease.  Quit smoking, manage blood sugar, check and maintain blood pressure, lower cholesterol, understand family history and risks, exercise and stay active, lose weight and eat healthy.

Exercise For Heart Health

Some risk factors are not within our control such as genetics, age and gender; however, so many are within our control such as, maintaining regular exercise and physical activity.  Exercise is essential to maintain a healthy heart.  Why?  Our bodies are designed to be physically active, not sedentary.  Lack of physical activity and exercise is a major controllable risk factor for heart disease.  In 2013 the American Heart Association released this statement.  “Exercise can be viewed as a preventive medical treatment, ‘like a pill’ that should be taken on an almost daily basis,” and yet 78% of adults engage in less physical activity than is currently recommended.

The benefits of exercise for heart health include: improving fat levels and cholesterol, improving blood sugar levels, reducing blood pressure and inflammation in the arteries, weight loss, keeping blood vessels flexible and open, strengthening the heart muscle to pump blood and oxygen more efficiently, reduction in stress and diabetes risk.   Regular exercise helps reverse a sick, stiff, and plaque – coated artery into a healthy artery.  Any aerobic activity such as walking, jogging, cycling, tennis, elliptical, running, stepping, swimming, in addition to strength training activities, is beneficial to heart health.

For overall cardiovascular health, schedule at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week or 150 minutes of total exercise. Another option is at least 25 minutes of vigorous activity at least 3 days per week or 75 minutes of total exercise.  A combination of moderate and vigorous activity each week is an alternative.  In addition, moderate to high intensity muscle strengthening activity at least 2 days per week is recommended.  To lower blood pressure and cholesterol an average of 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity 3-4 times per week is recommended according to the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine.

Along with the aforementioned exercises for heart health, there are more options.  Basically, physical activity of any type is better than no activity for the heart.  Activity such as, yoga, gardening, at home exercises, exercise for bone density, body weight training, boxing, and any activity that elevates heart rate and breathing will benefit the function of the heart.

Strength training builds muscle mass and is essential in preventing and reversing metabolic syndrome, the #1 cause of cardiovascular events.  Muscle power is essential to prevent heart attacks and strokes.  Extra muscle decreases inflammation, a major contributor to heart disease, lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, and must be factored into an exercise program.  More muscle burns more calories, an added benefit for weight loss and heart health.  Regardless of the type of exercise you choose, it is highly recommended to enlist a fitness professional to assess your ability, and create a customized program to avoid injury and ensure proper progression to maximize heart health.  If you already have known cardiac disease, it is highly recommended to enlist a Clinical Exercise Physiologist as they are certified to work with cardiac patients and ensure a safe and productive exercise routine.

In addition to exercising, a heart healthy diet should be implemented.  Daily foods for heart health include adequate fiber from whole grains, nuts & seeds, vegetables and fruit, healthy fat from olive oil, avocados and Omega-3, lean protein such as wild caught fish and chicken breast, fat-free dairy, legumes, water, green tea, flavors from garlic and spices and >70% dark chocolate.  With a heart healthy diet you will ensure all the nutrients needed from food, except for Vitamin D.  A blood test is recommended to ensure normal levels and if your numbers are low, your physician will recommend a proper Vitamin D supplement for you.  As Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, too much can damage the liver, so knowing your levels is very important to protect you against deficiency, and toxicity.

In addition to exercise and heart healthy foods to support heart health, practicing stress management daily is equally important.  Stress leads to poor lifestyle habits and emotional distress, and if chronic, is linked to physical disease.  Exercise and good nutrition will decrease stress.  In addition, add anything to your day that relaxes you.  For example, listen to music, dance, take a bath, sing, read, meditate, deep breathe, practice muscle relaxation, yoga and guided imagery, increase sleep, and anything else that will recharge your batteries.  The key is to schedule any of these relaxing activities each day in order to be effective and sustainable.

Go Red Get Fit

The American Heart Association has a Go Red for women program aimed at helping grow awareness in the prevention and treatment of heart disease in women.  There are engaging initiatives and challenges to keep healthy living fun and fresh.  The quarterly fitness challenges are a great way to motivate you to maintain healthy lifestyle habits.  For example, 1st Quarter challenge was to increase steps to 10,000 per day and reduce sugar consumption to 24 grams per day or the equivalent of 1 container of yogurt or glass of juice.  Each quarter another challenge is created motivating you to stay fit for heart health.  The below link has a plethora of information on heart health, the Go Red program, and awareness of your risk for this #1 killer.

Visit https://www.goredforwomen.org/goredgetfit/ for more information.

There are so many things we cannot control; however, choosing to exercise for heart health is within our control, and must be scheduled as any other task each day to ensure sustainability.  Contact a physician and an exercise professional to help create a program that is easy to apply and sustain, as it becomes a part of your lifestyle.   Avoid becoming an alarming statistic and exercise your way to heart health.


Marianne E. Morano, M.S., ACSM, CWC serves on Cancer Schmancer's Medical Advisory Board. She is a Clinical Exercise Physiologist and the CEO and Founder of Fit or WHAT, Inc. Her mission is to empower clients and the community to achieve their personal best through healthy lifestyle programs, creating longevity and quality of life.