Regular exercise is the most reliable way to maintain weight and prevent a heart attack. But if you have a chronic condition and can’t handle vigorous activity, here are some low-impact ways to protect your ticker…
When you’ve had a hectic day and your feet are dragging, it’s more tempting to hit the junk-food drawer and curl up with an episode of “Desperate Housewives” than work out. But those guilty little pleasures could be setting you up for a big fall later.
“If [the heart’s] not exercised regularly, blood and fluids start accumulating, and pressure rises in the chambers and blood vessels,” says Nieca Goldberg, founder of the Women’s Heart Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
That damages heart muscle and opens the door for cardiovascular disease – which strikes 1 in 3 adult women, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) – and, even worse, could lead to a heart attack.
But those issues are easy to prevent with just a few hours of exercise a week.
“Regular cardiovascular activity will rev metabolism, help you lose or control weight, boost confidence and improve mood,” says James M. Rippe, a cardiologist and author of Heart Disease for Dummies and The Healthy Heart Cookbook for Dummies (Wiley Publishing).
It also helps manage hypertension and lower triglyceride levels – the amount of fat in your bloodstream – which helps to prevent heart disease.
Get a check-up first
Before you begin an exercise program, see your doctor, especially if you’re diabetic, obese, or have had an embolism or are on heart medications. Some drugs can alter heart rates.
Once you get the green light, try these five easy ways to get your blood pumping:
1. Exercise Rx: Take a Walk
This simple activity is the No. 1 exercise prescribed by cardiologists for their patients.
It improves blood circulation to the heart by moving limbs repetitively in large ranges of motion.
It can be done anywhere, anytime: Inside an air-conditioned mall on your lunch hour or outside at a nearby park.
The AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise – including walking – throughout the week, which breaks down to roughly 30 minutes five times a week, or 50 minutes three times a week.
Do it right: How to tell if you’re walking fast enough for heart health? Take this Talk Test:
If you're doing moderate-intensity walking, you should be able to converse but not carry a tune.
With vigorous-intensity activity, you won’t be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.
If speech isn’t possible, you’re working too hard, says Rippe.
Watch out: If you’re obese or suffer from joint pain or other chronic conditions – osteoarthritis or fibromyalgia, for example – even walking may be too taxing. Warm water exercises might be easier.
2. Exercise Rx: Climb on an Elliptical Trainer
These machines, common in gyms, offer the same health benefits as walking, but are easy on painful joints.
If you can walk briskly, it’s safe to use an elliptical machine.
Do it right: To use them without injury, here are training tips from the American College of Sports Medicine:
Start slowly and warm up for five minutes.
Don’t lean on handrails.
Breathe deeply; don’t hold your breath.
Keep your neck and upper back relaxed.
Allow bent arms to swing naturally at sides.
Use your whole foot to climb, not just the ball.
Watch out: If you have balance issues, talk to your doctor first.
3. Exercise Rx: Ride a Stationary Bike
Bike-riding is great for outdoor fun. But for people with heart disease or those recuperating from surgery, it may be too much exertion, especially when wounds are healing.
That’s why Goldberg recommends using a recumbent bike in a gym. These put riders in a reclining position, supporting the lower back and evenly distributing weight.
Do it right:
Gradually warm up for 5-8 minutes.
Invite a biking partner and take the Talk Test every 10 minutes.
Keep your neck in line with your head; avoid jutting your jaw.
Finish with a stretch.
Watch out: If you have osteoporosis or feel frail, avoid biking outside where there’s a greater risk of falling and fracture.
4. Exercise Rx: Release the Mind
To make sure oxygen and nutrients are transported efficiently, experts recommend daily meditation, even for just 10-15 minutes, to reduce stress, improve attention, boost the immune and circulatory systems, and promote general well-being.
Do it right: Don’t know how to relax? Try these tips from the Mayo Clinic:
Find a quiet, relaxing spot; sit or recline.
Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Concentrate on feeling and listening as you breathe through the nostrils. When attention wanders – it inevitably does – gently return focus to your breath.
Focus on different parts of your body one at a time – for example, your toes, then fingers, then back – and become aware of various sensations. Imagine breathing heat into and out of them.
Repeat a word, chant or pray.
Listen to sacred music, spoken words or anything relaxing or inspiring.
Concentrate on a sacred object, weaving feelings of love and gratitude into your thoughts.
Watch out: No known dangers. If you’re a novice, start with a beginner or introductory DVD.
5. Exercise Rx: Try Yoga
“Yoga helps foster a positive attitude, increases blood and lymph flow, boosts immunity and lowers your blood pressure,” says cardiac yoga therapist Nirmala Heriza, author of Dr. Yoga: A Complete Guide to the Medical Benefits of Yoga (Penguin Books).
Her statement is backed by a small 2003 study, published in the Journal of the Association of Physicians of India (JAPI), that showed yoga and meditation reversed heart disease.
The yoga practitioners’ total cholesterol levels were reduced by 23.3% and low-density lipoproteins (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels were also lower in 43.7% of participants.
Heart disease progression was stopped in another 46.5% of the yoga patients, and they saw improvements in anxiety levels.
Many yoga poses are designed to relax, like Savasana (sha-va-sa-na), the opening and closing reclining pose.
Do it right:
Lie on your back with arms extended (palms up).
Close your eyes.
Separate your legs 18 inches apart.
Breathe deeply in and out through the nose.
Focus on positive or comforting imagery.
Watch out: You should feel no strain or pressure. If you suffer from lower-back problems, roll up a thick towel and place it under your knees or your neck for added spine support.
From there, try a Standing Mountain Pose, the foundation for all standing postures in many practices. It builds strength and balance.
Do it right:
Stand with your heels and big toes touching.
Keep body weight balanced evenly across both feet.
Spread your toes (practice barefoot).
Consciously contract your calf muscles and kneecaps.
Stiffen and pull up your thigh muscles.
Pull your navel in toward your spine.
Open your eyes and drop hands straight at your sides.
Rotate palms out slightly.
Slowly circle arms overhead to press palms firmly together, then lower. Repeat 3-8 times.
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