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Physical Activity and Your Health
If you currently get regular physical activity, congratulations! But if you're not
yet getting all the activity you need, you have lots of company. According to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60 percent of Americans are not
meeting the recommended levels of physical activity. Fully 16 percent of Americans
are not active at all. Overall, women tend to be less active than men, and older
people are less likely to get regular physical activity than younger individuals.
What does it mean to get "regular physical activity?"
To reduce the risk of heart disease, adults need only do about 30 minutes of moderate
activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week. This level of activity can also
lower your chances of having a stroke, colon cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes,
and other medical problems.
If you're also trying to manage your weight and prevent gradual, unhealthy weight
gain, try to get 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity on most days of
the week. At the same time, watch your calories. Take in only enough calories to
maintain your weight. Those who are trying to keep weight off should aim a bit higher:
Try to get 60-90 minutes of moderate-intensity activity daily, without taking in
If you're not as active as you might be, take a moment to consider why. Maybe you're
just in the habit of traveling by car or bus, even when you're not going far. In your
free time, perhaps it's tempting to sit down in front of the TV or computer rather than
do something more vigorous. It's easy to get busy or tired and decide that it's just
simpler to put off that brisk walk or bike ride. But when you think about the
serious problems that physical inactivity can create for your health-and the enormous
rewards of getting regular activity, you may want to reconsider. Let's start with
the ways that physical activity affects your heart.
Physical Activity: The Heart Connection
It's worth repeating: Physical inactivity greatly increases your risk of developing
heart disease. Heart disease occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart
muscle become hardened and narrowed, due to a buildup of plaque on the arteries' inner
walls. Plaque is the accumulation of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. As plaque
continues to build up in the arteries, blood flow to the heart is reduced. Heart
disease can lead to a heart attack. A heart attack happens when a cholesterol-rich
plaque bursts and releases its contents into the bloodstream. This causes a blood
clot to form over the plaque, totally blocking blood flow through the artery and
preventing vital oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. A heart attack can
cause permanent damage to the heart muscle.
Some people aren't too concerned about heart disease because they think it can be
cured with surgery. This is a myth. Heart disease is a lifelong condition. It's true
that certain procedures can help blood and oxygen flow more easily to the heart.
But the arteries remain damaged, which means you are still more likely to have a heart
attack. What's more, the condition of your blood vessels will steadily worsen unless
you make changes in your daily habits and control other factors that increase risk.
Heart disease is a serious disease-and too often, a fatal one. It is the number one
killer of Americans, with 500,000 people in the United States dying of heart disease
each year. Many others with heart problems become permanently disabled. That's why it's
so vital to take action to prevent this disease. Getting regular physical activity
should be part of everyone's heart disease prevention program.
Heart Disease Risk Factors
Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a
disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse.
Certain risk factors for heart disease, such as getting older or having a family history
of early heart disease can't be changed. But physical inactivity is a major risk factor
for heart disease that you have control over. You can make a decision to get regular
physical activity, and this booklet can help you create a workable, enjoyable program
that will help you protect your heart.
Other major risk factors for heart disease that you can change are smoking,
high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, overweight, and diabetes.
Smoking. People who smoke are up to six times more likely to suffer a
heart attack than nonsmokers, and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes
smoked each day. Quitting will greatly reduce your risk. Check with local community
groups for free or low-cost programs designed to help people stop smoking.
High Blood Pressure. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure increases your
risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure. Your
health care provider can check your blood pressure by means of a simple test using an
inflatable arm cuff. Blood pressure often can be entirely controlled by getting regular
physical activity, losing excess weight, cutting down on alcohol, and changing eating
habits, such as using less salt and other forms of sodium. For some people, medication
is also needed.
High Blood Cholesterol. High blood cholesterol can lead to the buildup of
plaque in your arteries, which raises the risk of a heart attack. Starting at age 20,
everyone should have their cholesterol levels checked by means of a blood test called a
"lipoprotein profile." You can lower
high blood cholesterol by getting regular physical activity, eating less saturated fat
and trans fat, and managing your weight. In some cases, medication is also needed.
Overweight. If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop
heart disease even if you have no other risk factors. Ask your doctor to help you
determine whether you need to lose weight for your health. The good news: Losing just
5-10 percent of your current weight will help to lower your risk of heart disease and
many other medical disorders.
Diabetes greatly increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, and other
serious diseases. Ask your doctor whether you should be tested for it. Many people at
high risk for diabetes can prevent or delay the disease by reducing calories as part of
a healthy eating plan, and by becoming more physically active. If you already have
diabetes, work closely with your doctor to manage it.
Every risk factor counts. Research shows that each individual risk factor greatly
increases the chances of developing heart disease and having a heart attack. A damaged
heart can damage your life, by interfering with enjoyable activities and even keeping
doing simple things, such as taking a walk or climbing steps. But it's important to know
that you have a lot of power to protect your heart health.
Getting regular physical activity is an especially important part of your healthy
heart program, because physical activity both directly reduces your heart disease risk
and reduces your chances of developing other risk factors for heart disease.
For example, regular physical activity may reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, increase HDL
(good) cholesterol, and lower high blood pressure. It can also protect your heart by
helping to prevent and control diabetes. Finally, physical activity can help you to lose
excess weight or stay at your desirable weight, which will also help to lower your risk
of heart disease.
Physical Activity: The Calorie Connection
One way that regular physical activity protects against heart disease is by burning
extra calories, which helps you to lose excess weight or stay at your desirable weight.
To understand how physical activity affects calories, it is helpful to consider the
"energy balance." Energy balance is the amount of calories you take in relative to the
amount of calories you burn. Per week, you need to burn off about 3,500 more calories
than you take in to lose 1 pound. If you need to lose weight for your health, regular
physical activity can help you through one of two approaches.
First, you can choose to eat your usual amount of calories, but be more active.
For example, a 200-pound person who keeps on eating the same amount of calories, but
begins to walk briskly each day for 11/2 miles, will lose about 14 pounds in 1 year.
Staying active will also help to keep the weight off.
Second, you can eat fewer calories and be more active. This is the best way to lose
weight, since you're more likely to be successful by combining a healthful,
lower-calorie diet with physical activity. For example, a 200-pound person who consumes
250 fewer calories per day, and begins to walk briskly each day for 11/2 miles, will
lose about 40 pounds in 1 year.
Most of the energy you burn each day?about three quarters of it - goes to activities
that your body automatically engages in for survival, such as breathing, sleeping, and
digesting food. The part of your energy output that you control is daily physical
activity. Any activity you take part in beyond your body's automatic activities will
burn extra calories. Even seated activities, such as using the computer or watching TV,
will burn calories?but only a very small number. That's why it's important to make time
each day for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
The Benefits Keep Coming
It is hard to imagine a single practice with more health benefits than regular
physical activity. In addition to protecting your heart in numerous ways, staying
- May help to prevent cancers of the breast, uterus, and colon.
- Strengthens your lungs and helps them to work more efficiently.
- Tones and strengthens your muscles.
- Builds stamina.
- Keeps your joints in good condition.
- Improves balance.
- May slow bone loss.
Regular physical activity can also boost the way you feel. It may:
- Give you more energy.
- Help you to relax and cope better with stress.
- Build confidence.
- Allow you to fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly.
- Help you to beat the blues.
- Provide an enjoyable way to share time with friends or family.
Given the numerous benefits of regular physical activity, be ready to get in motion!
But first, it's important to know how activities differ from one another and how each
form of movement uniquely contributes to your health. Three types of activity are
important for a complete physical activity program: aerobic activity, resistance
training, and flexibility exercises. Let's take a brief look at each one.
Types of Physical Activity
Aerobic activity is any physical activity that uses large muscle groups and causes your
body to use more oxygen than it would while resting. This booklet focuses mainly on
aerobic activity because it is the type of movement that most benefits the heart.
Examples of aerobic activity are brisk walking, jogging, and bicycling.
Resistance training also called strength training can firm, strengthen, and
tone your muscles, as well as improve bone strength, balance, and coordination. Examples
of strength moves are pushups, lunges, and bicep curls using dumbbells.
Flexibility exercises stretch and lengthen your muscles. These activities help
to improve joint flexibility and keep muscles limber, thereby preventing injury. An
example of a stretching move is sitting cross-legged on the floor and gently pushing down
on the tops of your legs to stretch the inner thigh muscles.
Working Together for Health
While aerobic activities benefit the heart most, all three types of movement are vital
components of a physical activity program. They also work together in important ways.
For example, resistance exercises can help you achieve the muscle strength, balance, and
coordination to do your aerobic activities more successfully. Meanwhile, flexibility
training will help you to move your muscles and joints more easily and prevent injury as
you engage in aerobic activities. Many activities that promote flexibility and
strength are also relaxing and fun.
Some people should get medical advice before starting, or significantly increasing,
Check with your doctor first if you:
- Are over 50 years old and not used to moderately energetic activity.
- Currently have a heart condition, have developed chest pain within the last month,
or have had a heart attack.
- Have a parent or sibling who developed heart disease at an early age.
- Have any other chronic health problem or risk factors for a chronic disease.
- Tend to easily lose your balance or become dizzy.
- Feel extremely breathless after mild exertion.
- Are on any type of medication.
After a Heart Attack
Following a heart attack, some people are afraid to be physically active. But it's
important to know that regular, moderate physical activity can help reduce your risk of
having another heart attack and actually improve your chances of survival. Being active
can also help you to more easily perform everyday tasks and to do so without chest pain
or shortness of breath.
If you've had a heart attack, it's important to consult your doctor to be sure you're
following a safe and effective physical activity program. Your doctor's guidance can help
prevent heart pain and/or further damage from too much exertion. Ask about getting
involved in cardiac rehabilitation, which is a total program for heart health that
includes exercise training, education, and counseling to help you return to an active
Source: National Institute of Health (NIH)
Adapted by Editorial Staff, October 2007
Last update, July 2008