Exercising Your Heart Muscle
Ali Othman, CPT
Hopping onto a treadmill and walking in place on the fast-track to nowhere can make even the most seasoned man or woman gasp for breath and cringe out of boredom. Cardiovascular exercise holds its own significance in terms of weight loss; but there are so many hidden benefits lying beneath this multi-layered surface. A strong heart provides the entire body with a more ample supply of oxygen-rich blood without having to beat as often; thus reducing the risk of high blood pressure, heart failure, and heart attacks. During cardiovascular exercise your heart beat rises into the desired beats per minute range, and your rate of breathing is forced to increase in order to supply your muscles with the right concentration of oxygen. Regular bouts of this type of exercise will increase the lung capacity and the efficiency of your body’s oxygen consumption. For an activity to be considered cardiovascular exercise, you must raise your heart rate into your target zone, and remain in that zone for at least ten minutes. If you have wanted to start an exercise routine but have lacked the motivation required to get started, you are far from alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, the “Percent of adults aged 18 and over who met the Physical Activity Guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity is 23.5%” (www.cdc.gov).
The first step to improving your heart health is finding an activity which you enjoy; this is important for maintaining your desire to continue your routine. The positive side here is that the activity you chose is less important than the routine. Perhaps you enjoy being outdoors; then biking, hiking, running, cycling, or walking are potential choices. If you prefer to do your activity in a gym, then your options are almost endless. You can chose one of many pieces of equipment designed for repetitive movements, take a variety of group exercise classes, utilize the principle of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) where you alternate between short periods of extremely intense activity followed by recovery periods of lower intensity, or partake anything else that will make your heart pump and shift your sweat glands into overdrive.
The target heart rate zone which you are aiming for when trying to improve your aerobic fitness is roughly 65 – 75% of your maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate for heathy individuals is calculated by subtracting your age from 220. For example, a healthy thirty year old will take 220 minus 30 for a maximum heart rate of 190 beats per minute. This individual would want to increase his or her heart rate to between 125 – 145 beats per minute to maximize the aerobic benefit of a workout. It is important to note that this calculation is not applicable to those who are overweight, on heart or blood pressure medication, or may have other conditions which affect normal heart activity. Once you find your activity of choice, the goal is to spend at least 150 minutes a week in your target heart rate zone (American Heart Association). This can easily fit into any schedule with thirty minute intervals of training, five days a week. Keep in mind that these thirty minutes are time spent in your target heart zone, not total exercise time; so you will want to plan your exercise routine accordingly. The first five or ten minutes of exercise should always be a warm-up, with a steady increase in intensity. The human body can be compared to a car in this situation. When your car is parked outside on a cold afternoon, it takes several minutes for the engine to warm up and work as expected. The older the car and the longer it has been parked in the cold, the longer the warm-up. Similarly, when your body is at rest, your muscles are cold and your joints are stiff. A short warm-up is essential to create an environment conducive to efficient movement, fluid joint mobility, and proper blood flow throughout your body. If it takes ten minutes to hit your target heart rate, follow that with thirty minutes of exercise in your target heart rate zone, and about five minutes of cool-down movements; so ideally you would budget forty-five minutes for your cardio routine.
The heart functions to pump blood through your vessels to all of your organs and muscles. During exercise, your muscles work harder and consume more oxygen than while sedentary causing your heart to beat faster in order increase the supply of oxygen-rich blood to these muscles. Like the other muscles in your body, the heart can be conditioned to perform its function more effectively; but unlike your skeletal muscle, the heart will not increase in size from conditioning. Instead the heart will increase in the efficiency with which it pumps and circulates your blood. A conditioned heart can pump more blood with each beat, allowing it to beat less frequently and regulate the blood pressure more proficiently than its non-conditioned counterpart. The result is a lower level of strain on your heart and less stress on your arterial walls. Translated, this means a lower possibility of heart disease, and a safer, more regulated blood pressure.
Cardiovascular exercise is not only regarded as safe, it has been proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular mortality. “There is a direct relation between physical inactivity and cardiovascular mortality, and physical inactivity is an independent risk factor for the development of coronary artery disease. The greatest potential for reduced mortality is in the sedentary who become moderately active.” (ahajournals.org). As with any physical activity there are certain risk factors which need to be assessed before the onset of an exercise program. If you currently have heart disease or heart-related illness, are a cigarette smoker, have diabetes, are obese, have high cholesterol, have high blood pressure, are on blood pressure medication, or have lived a mostly sedentary lifestyle then your risk of a cardiac event is elevated during exercise. Do not take this as a reason to throw in the towel and forgo exercise all-together because suffering from any of these conditions means you are in the category of those who would most benefit from a safe, medically prescribed and professionally supervised cardiovascular exercise routine. Instead, consult with your physician to learn the risks and your limitations; and learn to monitor the warning signs or symptoms of a cardiac event.
If you are intending to start a program for the first time, or get back into an exercise routine after a long absence then there are a few important points to consider. Start with a small and realistic goal, perhaps fifteen minutes of brisk walking each day for the first week. This is something that almost anybody can work into their schedule and regardless of physical fitness level can be a manageable goal. Once you manage to complete this objective you set another which is a little more difficult to achieve, yet still realistic and attainable. Done properly, cardiovascular exercise produces noticeable results more quickly than resistance training. The key to cardiovascular exercise is consistency; goals can be more easily reached if exercise is calculated and consistent. Take a scientific approach and manage your routine on your own or with the help of a health professional. Track your progress and look back at your results. Cardiovascular exercise can be measured in terms of time spent in your target heart rate zone, and the intensity of your exercise. Over the course of your program you should work towards increases in both of these measurements.
Summer will soon be upon us; and with summer comes longer days, beautiful weather, and outdoor activities. After work, grab your family and go for a brisk walk instead of parking yourself on the couch. Pick up a Frisbee or a soccer ball and head to the park to fill your lungs with fresh air. It is amazing how great a short session of cardiovascular exercise can make you feel. After a few weeks of proper training, you may notice that you can more easily walk up a flight of stairs, or can carry your child for longer periods without becoming winded. A positive side effect here is the burning of calories, loss of fat, and increase in metabolism. What you may not notice is what is happening inside your body, and these are the changes that can really increase your quality of life.
Exercise increases the amount of blood pumped to the brain, releases endorphins which help to enhance your mood, and has even been shown to improve cognitive brain function. Planning just thirty minutes a day of heart-pumping activity can go a long way to bettering your overall wellness, especially if you can plan your activities to include your loved ones. As always, be sure you have been cleared for exercise by your physician, then find a fun way to kick off your potentially life-changing routine.
Ali Othman has been an NSCA certified personal trainer for the past 13 years with specialization in weight loss, functional training, muscular hypertrophy, and human nutrition. He also works in the Technical Department at IFANCA and manages IFANCA business activities in South Korea.