The good news: You do have some control over how healthy your heart is. What you do, what you eat and how you live can actually change how your heart works. It's amazing if you think about it -- you actually have the power to make your heart stronger with just a few changes in your lifestyle. That's a tremendous power to have, but are you taking advantage of it?
Focus on Your Heart
There are so many things to worry about these days, it's tough to get too riled about something we can't see or feel. Many types of heart disease fall into that category and, though it's the single largest killer of American men and women, for many of us, it isn't even on the radar. When we talk about heart disease, what we usually mean is coronary artery disease. If your coronary arteries, which supply oxygen to the heart, become blocked, your heart doesn't get the nutrients it needs to function. That could lead to a heart attack or even death.
It's important to become familiar with heart disease symptoms for women and men, but not everyone has obvious symptoms that point to a problem. It's possible to have high blood pressure or high cholesterol and feel just fine, which leads many of us to believe that, if we feel healthy, then we are healthy.
This is especially true of women, who may not experience the typical heart disease symptoms we see in men. For example, women may not feel any chest pain, but will often complain of a burning sensation in the shoulders, back, arms or jaw. Because these symptoms don't seem related to heart problems, women may be misdiagnosed, which could mean problems down the road.
That isn't to say that all of us are walking around with heart disease. It's possible that you're healthy now, but that some of the things you're doing put you at risk for future heart problems. Just some things that can contribute to heart disease include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Family history of heart problems
- Being sedentary
- Eating a high fat diet
- High cholesterol
Some of the things in this list prove that you do have some control over your heart. You can quit smoking, lose some weight and learn how to unclench your jaw everytime somebody cuts you off in traffic. But, if doing all these things at once seems too overwhelming, I have just the place for you to start. There's one thing you can do right now that will improve your heart health immediately.
How to Change Your Heart
If you've ever worked out, you've certainly felt the immediate effects of exercise - your heart speeds up as your body demands more oxygen, your breathing rate increases and you start to sweat to cool your body. All of those things go back to normal as soon as you stop exercising, but, what you may not know is that exercising consistently can actually change how your heart functions. Regular exercise:
- Lowers your resting heart rate (RHR). A heart that's in good shape actually beats fewer times when you're at rest. That's why many athletes have resting heart rates as low as 40 or 50 beats per minute. As you exercise, you'll find your RHR will decrease as you get into better shape.
- Makes the heart more efficient. Consistently exercising the heart makes it work harder for you with less effort expended. That means normal activities become easier since your heart doesn't have to work as hard.
- Strengthens the heart. Just like lifting weights repeatedly can make your muscles stronger, regular cardio exercise actually makes your heart (which is also a muscle) stronger. The stronger your heart is, the more blood it can pump with each beat. That means your body gets oxygen faster and more efficiently.
- Helps you recover faster. When you exercise regularly, it doesn't take as much time for your heart rate to return to baseline. That recovery time becomes faster and faster as you get in shape. Tracking recovery heart rate is one way experts track improved fitness levels.
- Protects your health. As your heart gets stronger, it reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.
- Increases good cholesterol. Not only does it increase good cholesterol, regular exercise also decreases bad cholesterol (LDL) which means there may be less plaque built up in the arteries. Less plaque means blood can flow freely to and from the heart.
It's amazing that something as simple as moving your body can have such dramatic benefits but even knowing this, some of us still aren't exercising. If that sounds familiar, you may feel relieved to learn that you don't have to exercise for hours a day to get the benefits. Even just a little movement can make a difference. Learn what you can do to exercise your heart.