Being active, in all forms and at all ages, is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease and improve overall health and well-being.
It not only can aid with weight control and fitness, it can help in recovering from a heart episode or procedure.
"It is the best medicine," said Dr. Randal Thomas, medical director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "The more active we are, the better our bodies are functioning."
That includes heart muscle strength, artery health and improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Physical activity helps oxygen move more efficiently through the body and can help the brain's cognitive abilities.
Physical activity doesn't require a gym membership or expensive exercise equipment and gear. "It can be very low cost," Thomas said.
Dancing, walking around the neighborhood, raking leaves or taking the stairs at work – instead of the elevator – are all ways to get moving. If you've been living a sedentary life, start with an activity you enjoy and keep your initial exercise session short, Thomas said.
"Get up off the couch and do something at least five minutes a day," he said, suggesting that five minutes be added each day to build up gradually to a sustained period of movement.
The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
Even short bursts of activity are helpful, and some exercise is better than none. A 15- or 20-minute walk can generate feel-good endorphins.
"We can feel these effects pretty quickly," Thomas said.
Endurance exercise, or aerobic activity, should be included along with strength, balance and flexibility exercises as part of an ideal workout plan.
If physical activity already is part of your routine, it's still important to be mindful of sitting for too many hours at a time. Extended sedentary time can be harmful, Thomas said. It can increase the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
In fact, physical activity is one of the elements in Life's Simple 7, measurable actions created by the AHA to help prevent cardiovascular diseases. The other six are eating a healthy diet, managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, losing weight and quitting smoking.
For those living with heart disease, including people who have had a recent heart attack or heart procedure, physical activity boosts recovery and may help avert issues later.
"We get people moving, literally, while they're still in the hospital," Thomas said. The goal is to get a heart patient into a cardiac rehabilitation program within the first week of leaving the hospital.
Cardiac rehab offers supervised exercise and includes nutrition counseling, smoking cessation assistance and stress management. It can help reduce the risk of death from heart disease and reduce the risk of future heart problems.
Patients should not fear exercise, Thomas said. Though some easing into exercise is necessary at the beginning, cardiac rehab patients can and should be physically active.
With all physical activity, people who have medical concerns should seek guidance from their physician. Older people, for example, may want to pay special attention to balance, but they can remain active with balance support through seated aerobics, stationary bikes or treadmills that have side rail handles.
In fact, the latest federal physical activity guidelines recommend older adults mix balance training with muscle-strengthening and aerobic activities.
Children need exercise, too. Youngsters between 6 and 17 years old should get an hour or more of moderate to vigorous, mostly aerobic, physical activity each day.
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