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For women who have heart disease, exercise is critical

Main Line Health May 17, 2019 Women's Health

You’ve probably heard the statistics:

  • Heart disease claims the life of one in every five women.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women.
  • Heart disease claims the lives of more women every year than every form of cancer…combined.

Facts like these are frightening, and heart disease isn’t something to be taken lightly. But remember: while you can’t reverse heart disease, you can make changes to live well with heart disease. This includes eating well; managing your ‘numbers’ like blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides; not smoking; limiting alcohol intake; managing stress; and—importantly—staying active.

Consistently maintaining an active lifestyle can be difficult. During busy days or weeks, it can be hard to fit in any exercise at all. But it’s especially important to fit in regular exercise when you’re actively managing heart disease or heart health.

Unfortunately, many women are falling short of getting adequate exercise. Johns Hopkins Medicine recently conducted a nationwide survey to determine how sociodemographic factors like age, race and ethnicity affected physical activity levels among women with heart disease. Of the nearly 19,000 women surveyed, more than half did not get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.

Among this group, women ages 40–64 with heart disease were the fastest-growing age group who were not getting enough exercise. Women of color—in particular, African-American and Hispanic women—were more likely to not exercise enough.

“This is a common issue for many women, not just women with heart disease. When you have a to-do list that includes a busy career, social commitments and caring for a partner, child or parent, exercise almost always get put on the back burner,” explains Riti Patel, MD, FACC, a Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Main Line Health. “But if you are a woman who has heart disease, consistently putting off exercise can have serious consequences.”

These consequences can be physical, like cardiac disability or early cardiac death. But they can be financial, too—Johns Hopkins found that women who had heart disease spent an average of $4,000 more on medical care than women who did not have heart disease.

“Exercise is an investment in our health and it’s something everyone should make time for during the week, but it can be helpful to think of it as cost-saving measure, too. That can be the extra motivation that some people need to recognize its long-term impact,” says Dr. Patel.

Making time for fitness

We already know that making time for exercise isn’t easy. But if you’re a woman with heart disease who is looking to fit some physical activity into your daily routine, where do you start?

In a word? Says Dr. Patel: “Anywhere!”

A walking routine can be a great start to your exercise routine and is generally safe for people who have heart disease. Start with 10-minute walks two to three times per day. The benefit of a walking routine is that you can fit a walk in wherever you are and at a time that’s convenient for you.

If you don’t live in walkable area or walking isn’t your fitness routine of choice, there are other options. You can try outdoor or stationary biking or talk to your doctor about a light strength training routine. If you belong to a community pool, start with swimming or water aerobics. Whatever routine you decide to try, make sure it’s one you enjoy and that you’re willing to stick to.

Before you begin any type of new exercise, talk to your cardiologist.

“There are many ways to exercise safely if you have heart disease, but there are some precautions you should take, like not exercising in very hot or very cold weather. Depending on your personal health status or history, there may be additional precautions, as well,” says Dr. Patel.

And while it’s good to start slowly with a new routine, remember to aim for 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Thirty minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five times a week will help you meet your goal…and improve your health.

“I know how difficult it can be to fit exercise into a busy day but, as health complications and deaths continue to rise, it’s important for women to make time for themselves and their health,” says Dr. Patel.