Heart Health – How can exercise help my heart?

Blog Cover pic

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the number one cause of death worldwide, accounting for almost one third of all deaths – with the majority due to heart attack and stroke. Although this is quite an alarming figure, a positive way to think about CVD is to recognise how much control we actually have in reducing our CVD risk. There are many health behaviours within our control that contribute to our risk profile – these are known as our modifiable risk factors. Exercise is just one modifiable risk factor that is undoubtedly shown to improve cardiovascular health. 

We can use different health “markers” to indicate cardiovascular health and our risk of CVD. There is strong evidence to support exercise in managing the following cardiac health markers:

  • Blood pressure: Exercise can help to manage hypertension (high blood pressure), reducing both resting blood pressure readings and high spikes in blood pressure. Well-managed blood pressure can prevent unnecessary stress on the cardiovascular system.
  • Cholesterol: Exercise can help to reduce total cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol (LDLs), as well as increase “good” cholesterol (HDLs). This is important to minimise plaque build up within the arteries, known as atherosclerosis.
  • Cardiac Output: With exercise, the heart muscle is able to increase its ability to pump more blood to the body with each heartbeat, meaning its cardiac output is more efficient. This may mean the heart can pump less beats per minute (i.e. at a lower heart rate) to achieve the same amount of blood output in comparison to someone who is physically inactive. This is one of the reasons why marathon runners often have much lower resting heart rates!
  • Oxygen Efficiency: Oxygen is carried around the body in our blood, and is delivered to our working muscles during exercise. As a response to regular exercise, the muscles become more efficient at extracting the oxygen from blood, as well as better at utilising the oxygen it receives. These improvements reduce the stress on the heart to pump blood for oxygen delivery.
  • Artery Function: The ability for the arteries to expand and allow for optimal blood flow is enhanced with regular exercise. Artery function goes hand-in-hand with cholesterol management and preventing atherosclerosis.
  • Blood Sugar Control: Exercise can help control and regulate blood sugar levels, and reduce frequency and intensity of high blood sugar spikes. This is important to protect the blood vessels from damage. 

There is no doubt that our hearts LOVE exercise, but it isn’t the only health behaviour that can influence these cardiac makers. Diet, smoking status, stress-management and sleep quality are just some examples of other health behaviours we can modify. Other factors that we cannot control, known as non-modifiable risk factors, include genetics/family history, birth sex and race/ethnicity. All types of risk factors are important to know about to understand your own CVD risk profile, however it is best to highlight the things we CAN control. After all, we are the architects of our own health.

Shanyn – Accredited Exercise Physiologist