You’ve probably heard a million times that heart disease is America’s number-one killer. It also is the most preventable killer. Modern medicine can perform miracles in repairing congenital heart problems, mending damaged hearts, and reaming out clotted blood vessels. If you were born with a heart defect, it’s wonderful that doctors can now repair the problem. If you started out with a healthy heart, however, it’s unfortunate if you put yourself in line for major surgical procedures or rely on medications when you can be proactive in keeping your ticker ticking.
There is a chicken-and-egg aspect to the relationship between cardiorespiratory health and fitness. If your heart and lungs are in good shape, you have a giant leg up on getting fit because your cardiorespiratory heart and lungs can handle a real workout. If you have been getting aerobic exercise and are fit, these organs are healthy. If you are sedentary, you have to work up to a hard workout. In other words, you have to build both strength and endurance. Building your heart’s efficiency in pumping blood and your lungs’ capabilities through aerobic exercise is crucial to maintaining (or restoring) your heart’s health.
Experts differ in what they consider to be the bare minimum of aerobic exercise that is effective. Many trainers believe that cardiovascular benefits begin with 30 minutes of aerobic activity three times a week. Others say you need at least 20 minutes each day.
To make sure that “at least 20 minutes” doesn’t become a flat “20 minutes” or even less in many people’s minds, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 20 to 60 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise each day at 60 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate.
Allow one or two days of rest per week from aerobic activity. This does not mean sitting in the recliner and watching television. It can be active rest, which refers to a lower level of activity than your aerobic exercise, such as a leisurely walk, a bike ride, a gentle swim, or simply doing chores that require physical activity.
Heart disease and stroke are the number-one and number-three causes of death for both men and women, and extra weight makes the problem worse. Studies have shown that overweight individuals have triple the normal risk of these diseases. Exercise is the best way to lower the risks. Even without weight loss, exercise alone decreases harmful cholesterol levels in the blood, improves circulation, and therefore reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. More specifically, aerobic exercise increases the amount of blood your heart can pump with each heartbeat, improves circulation by making your blood vessels healthier, and increases the production of oxygen-metabolizing enzymes that allow you to use oxygen more efficiently and to eliminate waste products from your system. It also burns calories, resulting in weight loss. The result is a reduction of specific risk factors—and probably weight loss as well. In short, you can’t afford not to do aerobic exercise.