This muscular organ, with its steady pump, keeps the beat to the music of our lives: the heart. Turns out, your work to keep it strong is a key to longevity. While it’s not surprising that exercise is good for you — and for your heart — it may surprise you to learn that exercise that tests your heart in a controlled manner on an ongoing basis can actually add years to your life.
While exactly how many more years exercise adds is up for discussion, one thing is sure: Regular, moderate-to-high-intensity exercise makes your heart stronger — and a stronger heart works better and can last longer.
Your heart’s job is to deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body. When you exercise, your muscles work much harder and, therefore, need much more oxygen and nutrients. As a result, your heart must work harder to meet the demand by beating faster, says preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD.
With consistent training, your heart muscle fibers get stronger in order to cope with the higher workload, causing hypertrophy (an increase in bulk or thickening) of your heart muscle fibers and strengthening your heart’s contraction (squeezing) ability, says Dr. Ahmed.
Plus, the benefits of regular exercise aren’t just limited to your heart — muscles throughout your body benefit as well, thanks to improved oxygen and nutrient delivery.
You may know that sitting for long periods of time isn’t good for your cardiovascular system, but just how bad is it?
Research studies have shown sedentary behavior and regular exercise are likely independent of each other. That is, even if you exercise for 30 minutes each day, sitting for long periods of time for the rest of the day may still increase your risk of heart disease. This is because the mechanisms of harm related to prolonged sitting are likely separate from exercise.
“When we sit down for long periods of time we get smooth muscle relaxation around our blood vessels, our blood pressure and heart rates change and we become more likely to snack, especially while watching television,” says Dr. Ahmed. “Rather than being physically active or sleeping, we are sitting, which is worse than either.”
Prolonged sitting can damage more than your heart — it can also wreak havoc on your insulin resistance and cholesterol levels too, says Dr. Ahmed.
If you have a desk job, consider exercising your heart by using a standing desk or treadmill desk, or taking a walk for five or 10 minutes several times per day.
Well-trained athletes like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps need to pump a tremendous amount of blood to their body when they practice and compete. That kind of exercise can build your heart muscle over the years and may help you develop an “athletic heart,” according to Dr. Ahmed.
With an athletic heart, your heart’s squeezing ability becomes very strong, which means it does not have to beat as much during rest to deliver the necessary amount of oxygen throughout your body. Also, over time the muscles that are regularly exercised become more efficient at extracting oxygen and nutrients from your blood, further easing your heart’s burden.
Cardiac rehabilitation and exercise are beneficial in virtually all age groups, says Dr. Ahmed. His advice? Start slowly and then increase your exercise progressively to reduce your risk of injury.
“Regular exercise should be a slow but steady lifestyle modification that you stick with, as opposed to a hot trend that lasts two weeks,” he says.
He suggests choosing exercises that you enjoy — which makes it easier to stick with it when you are busy. Getting an accountability partner can help, too, because exercising with a partner or going to the gym with a spouse or friend helps keep you both motivated.
Research shows that you must push your body past a certain level (think brisk walking, jogging or cycling) in order to accrue these health benefits for your heart and the rest of your body, says Dr. Ahmed.
You have to listen to your body, though. If you are ever in pain, then that is your cue to stop, he says. Also, if you have a heart condition, talk with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.