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Exercise and Your Heart

Physical activity is good for your heart. This message is one that must have reached almost everyone but is it a message that many of us choose to ignore? Maybe we hear it so often that it just washes over us and we ignore it, as was the case with the early heavy advertising about AIDS and safe sex. It may simply be that for those of us that are couch potatoes, the very thought of ‘physical activity’ is quite off-putting! Or for many of us with busy lives, just the thought of trying to fit in time for ‘exercise’ is exhausting!

Maybe it’s the words ‘exercise’ and ‘physical activity’ that put us off because they conjure up visions of fit, lithe people visiting a rather expensive gym three times a week! Perhaps the messages would be more effective if they excluded the words ‘physical activity’ and ‘exercise’ and simply encouraged us to introduce more activity into our existing lives so we actually achieve greater activity and the health benefits almost without realising it!

According to the British Heart Foundation, although 7 out of 10 adults in the UK do not take enough regular exercise to achieve health benefits to protect their heart, but 8 out of 10 adults actually think that they are fit.

So what are the benefits for you from taking more exercise?

  • Physical activity halves the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
  • In people that have already had heart attacks, those who have been physically active are twice as likely to survive the heart attack compared to those people who have not been active.
  • Physical activity reduces the risk of having a stroke, helps to lower blood pressure.
  • It reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
  • It helps to reduce weight in people that are overweight or obese.
  • It can help to relieve stress, make you feel better and it can be enjoyable.


  • There is no level of activity that has to be achieved to gain health benefits.
  • The largest gain in health benefits from increasing physical activity levels, is in people who are inactive and who start to take regular exercise or physical activity eg walking, cycling, dancing or swimming.

The major risk factors for coronary heart disease are:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Lack of exercise

Other factors that may affect your risks of having a heart attack:

  • Too much alcohol
  • Excessive salt intake
  • Obesity

The scientific evidence
A review, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine [April 2002], of 54 clinical trials involving 2,419 previously sedentary adults concluded that regular exercise reduced the systolic blood pressure [the top number] by an average of 4 and diastolic blood pressure [the lower number] by an average of 2.6mm Hg. The results add to the evidence that exercise is important for treating high blood pressure and for preventing it occurring in healthy people.

While the study did not show what level of activity was ideal for lowering blood pressure, results of various types of aerobic exercise at all frequencies were beneficial to people who were previously sedentary – in other words any activity is better than none. US officials are advising that people should have at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on 5 or more days of the week.

The cause of coronary heart disease
It is caused when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become narrowed due to a gradual build up of fatty tissue [atheroma] within the walls of these arteries – this condition is called atherosclerosis. A heart attack is caused if a blood clot forms over the artheroma. The development of this fatty tissue, or atheroma, is caused by the cells in the coronary artery walls taking up cholesterol and this is the beginning of the narrowing of the arteries. As we all know, some of the body’s cholesterol is formed from the fats in the food we eat but it is important to remember that there are two types of cholesterol – the good and the bad!

LDL cholesterol [bad] forms the atheroma.

HDL cholesterol [good] removes cholesterol from the circulation and appears to have a protective effect on the heart.

So ideally we should have a lower levels of LDL cholesterol and higher levels of HDL.

Why is physical activity important for your heart?

Research indicates the following:

  • Physical activity appears to raise HDL [good] cholesterol levels but does not affect LDL cholesterol levels.
  • It helps to prevent blood clotting and so reduces the risk of a heart attack.
  • It helps to lower blood pressure and also to prevent high blood pressure from developing.
  • It helps to reach and maintain a healthy weight.

Physical activity and diabetes


  • Men that have diabetes are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop coronary heart than men without diabetes.
  • Women with diabetes are 4 to 5 times more likely to develop it than women without diabetes.
  • In people that already have diabetes, physical activity can reduce the amount of medications needed or reduce the insulin dose.
  • Moderate, rhythmic exercise seems to reduce the risk of people developing Type 2 diabetes in middle age.

Two main types of activity
Aerobic activity – this type of exercise benefits your heart. It is any activity that is rhythmic and repetitive eg walking, swimming, cycling, dancing which increase the body’s demand for oxygen so making the heart and lungs work harder and more efficiently.

Isometric exercise – this increases muscle tension without moving a joint eg pushing against a wall. Isometric exercise does not help the heart and circulation. It should be avoided by people with heart disease or high blood pressure because it can increase blood pressure so putting the heart under stress.

Is it safe to start exercising?

  • If you already have had a heart attack or any other heart condition such as angina or you have high blood pressure, you should always discuss with your doctor how much and what sort of exercise you should do. There are certain heart conditions where exercise may not be advisable.
  • Always stop exercising if you get any pain or feel dizzy, sick or unwell. If the symptoms don’t go away or come back later, see your doctor.
  • It is unsafe to exercise when you have a viral infection such as a sore throat.
  • It is always sensible to gradually build up your physical activity in terms of both the time spent and the intensity. A sudden increase in exercise, especially vigorous exercise can be dangerous especially in middle aged people.