Physical exercise is an energy booster, mood enhancer, stress reliever. And one of the sports’ most important roles is the protection of our vital organ – the heart.
In the past, medicine was focused on curing the disease. Today, it is starting to ask why does the disease occur in the first place, and how can we prevent it? This is the basis of preventive healthcare, aimed at adopting lifestyle choices that encourage good health. Such an approach is especially important with cardiovascular diseases, which are heavily influenced by the way we live our life.
Take a closer look at how physical activity helps your heart and protects from the biggest health threat of the 21st century.
Cardiovascular diseases: modern-day menace
WHO fact sheet on cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) provides some frightening facts: in 2016 they were responsible for an estimated 17.9 million or 31% of all deaths worldwide. But despite their death toll, cardiovascular diseases remain the most preventable chronic disease of the modern age.
Knowing what they are, what they do, and how to best prevent them is valuable knowledge for everyone who wants to remain in the pink of health.
WHO defines cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) as a group of disorders that affect the heart and blood vessels. Let us take a brief look at the types of cardiovascular diseases:
- Diseases of blood vessels which supply the heart, brain, and extremities.
- Damage to the heart muscle and valves from rheumatic fever (caused by bacteria).
- Inborn defects in heart and blood vessel structure.
- Blood clots in leg veins, which can dislodge and move to the heart and lungs.
But when we think cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks and strokes are the first to come to mind. They are usually acute events caused by a combination of risk factors (smoking, alcohol, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity, hypertension, diabetes, and a high level of cholesterol or triglycerides in your blood).
According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This most often happens due to a buildup of plaque (fat and cholesterol) in a long-term process called atherosclerosis.
Stroke can be caused either by a clot obstructing the flow of blood to the brain (an ischemic stroke) or by a blood vessel rupturing and preventing blood flow to the brain (a hemorrhagic stroke).
The power of sports
One of the best things you can do for your heart is to get up and start moving. Physical activity provides countless health benefits, from the obvious loss of weight to improving several factors connected to cardiovascular health (blood pressure, blood sugar).
“For certain heart conditions, exercise can be as powerful as some medications,” says Kerry Stewart, Ed.D, from Johns Hopkins Medicine. He goes on to explain exactly how your daily yoga class, swim or run help you maintain a healthy heart.
- Similarly to beta-blocker medications, physical activity slows down your heart rate and lowers blood pressure, which, if increased, are important risk factors for heart disease.
- Combined with proper healthy nutrition sports activity can help maintain a healthy weight which is crucial for optimal heart health. Excessive kilos put a significant strain on your entire body, especially heart.
- When it comes to the type of exercise, your heart prefers a mix of aerobic (swimming, running, walking) and strength training (resistance training, weight lifting). Figure out a combination that works best for you, and it will improve your muscles’ ability to get oxygen from blood – including heart’s.
- Because smoking prevents you from reaching your full athletic potential, this can be a strong motivator to stop smoking or never even start in the first place. Smoking damages blood vessels and is thus a number one risk factor for heart diseases.
- Research performed by Johns Hopkins shows that regular aerobic exercise can cut your risk of diabetes by half! Regular exercise leads to more effective processing of glycogen (an energy source). If this process is impaired, it leads to excessive blood sugar and diabetes.
- No matter what kind of exercise you choose, it will have a significant stress-relieving effect. And lower levels of stress hormones take the strain off your heart. Just be sure to adjust the activity to your body’s needs and capabilities. People with (or at risk of) high blood pressure should avoid activities which increase blood, cellular, or muscular pressure. Those include lifting weights above your head and planking. You don’t have to exhaust yourself to get rid of stress. It is scientifically proven that a simple walk, especially in nature, has the best stress-relieving effect.
- Regular physical activity reduces chronic inflammation. This is important because chronic inflammation influences the onset of many diseases, including the conditions of the heart.
Think positive and adopt a kitten
We’ve explained how physical activity is your trusted ally in fending off CVDs, but that is not all you can do. A proactive approach to your health, involving proper nutrition and not smoking, will keep your heart healthy and ensure you have a long and quality life. Head to our blog about heart health to read about the steps you can take to keep it in peak condition. Meanwhile, we will round off by revealing how you can benefit your heart from more, shall we say, peculiar sources.
One of them has soft fur and likes to purr. You guessed it – cats! Animals, in general, make us feel all warm and bubbly inside, but there is more to this affection. A study, carried out at Minnesota University, showed that cats reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes by more than 30%. What is felines’ superpower? It turns out cat ownership lowers stress, which is an important risk factor for CVDs. If you needed an argument to persuade your significant other, parents, or roommate to get a cat, we can’t think of a better one: get a cat, protect your heart!
Another study shows that optimism has a tangible role in our lives: it acts as a shield against heart diseases. A study, which was published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, looked at data from 15 previous analyses. It included 230,000 participants from the US, Europe, Israel, and Australia, and monitored them over the course of 14 years. The participants who described themselves as optimists experienced 35% fewer strokes and were 14% less likely to suffer a premature death by any cause, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, and diabetes.
We’ll just add that to the reason why we should always see the glass half full!