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Go back to fitness basics for best heart health

Bryn Mawr Hospital December 22, 2015 General Wellness

You’ve likely heard your fair share of resolutions for the New Year already, many of which will involve fitness: pledging to join the gym, shed the last 10 pounds, or finally signing up for that half marathon this year.

While these are all worthy goals—and some of them may even be achievable for a motivated few—the key to success this year might just be going back to basics.

“Exercise is an important part of a healthy routine, but you don’t have to do anything significant or high intensity in order for it to start making a difference,” explains Matthew Hillis, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “The benefits are almost instant, particularly for your heart.”

Rather than focusing on joining an expensive gym or signing up for an expensive series of exercise classes this year, set your focus on three areas of fitness to maximize the benefits for your heart and overall health.

Cardiovascular/aerobic exercise

Forms: Walking, jogging, running, biking, swimming, boxing, dancing, aqua aerobics

Benefits: These forms of exercise are all guaranteed to help you break a sweat, but that’s not their only benefit. Cardiovascular exercise can keep your heart health in check by lowering blood pressure, promoting weight loss, reducing your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and improving your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. It will also give you an energy boost and build bone strength.

Duration: How long you spend on cardiovascular exercise depends on how hard you’re working. If you’d classify your workouts at a mild or moderate pace, aim for 150 minutes per week. But, if you tend toward a more intense workout, 75 minutes per week is enough to keep you healthy.

Why it’s important for women: Make no mistake: It’s important for everyone. But women especially can benefit from cardiovascular exercise, as it can help battle weight gain that typically affects women during middle age and after menopause. The stress relief and energy boost is an added bonus.

Strength training

Forms: Talk to a certified trainer or physical therapist to find weight lifting or body weight exercises that are appropriate for you.

Benefits: Most people think that cardiovascular exercise is the best and only way to burn calories, but strength training can lead to increased muscle mass and a faster metabolism, which makes it easier for your body to burn calories. Strength training is also key for building stronger bones and reducing your risk of injury.

Duration: Aim for strength training sessions twice a week, and make sure you have at least one day of rest in between each session.

Why it’s important for women: Among women, muscle mass begins declining at age 40 and continues declining at a greater percentage every year afterwards. The earlier you can begin increasing your muscle mass and improving your bone health, the better you will be later in life. Your twenties and thirties are an important time to begin strength training.

Stretching exercises

Forms: Yoga, resistance bands, foam roller exercises

Benefits: Practicing a formal stretching practice, like yoga, can increase your lung capacity, lower blood pressure, boost your circulation, and improve respiratory function. Other stretching exercises, like using resistance bands and foam rollers, can help decrease soreness and lengthen the body as you age.

Duration: Stretching exercises can be done as often as you’d like, typically about two to three times per week. They can be done during a rest day, or before or after another workout. However, don’t count these stretching workouts towards your total weekly workout count. Stretching routines aren’t typically vigorous enough to accelerate your heart rate to calorie-burn mode.

Why it’s important for women: Yoga’s benefits, in particular, are important for warding off health issues like heart disease. Increased lung capacity, lower blood pressure, and improved circulation and respiratory function can all help reduce your heart disease risk.

Beginning your exercise routine

Before you begin any routine, it’s important to check in with your doctor to ensure that you are healthy enough for each of these forms of exercise.

“Almost everyone can benefit from some type of exercise, but it’s important to talk to your doctor about what kind of exercise is best for you,” explains Dr. Hillis. “There are only a handful of factors that you can control regarding your health, and exercise is one of them. Make this the year  that you take control.”

Ready to get started? Visit our website to make an appointment with a Main Line Health physician or to set up a complete exercise routine with a Main Line Health physical therapist.

Join Dr. Hillis for his upcoming installment of our Learn Well, Live Well seminar series on Tuesday, February 16, 2016 when he'll discuss the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack.