Women are supposed to be experts at matters of the heart, but when it comes to heart health, it seems we could all use a little more instruction.
It’s hard enough for women to recognize that cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of all women, so getting a heart-healthy focus in your 30s, 40s, and beyond is a challenge.
February is Healthy Heart Month, and Friday, February 5th is Wear Red Day, a health observance to raise awareness that heart disease is not just a man’s disease.
While you don’t need to run a marathon or become a gym rat to improve your heart health, you do need to get your body moving and get active on a regular basis to work out the hardest working muscle in your body. Read on to learn what constitutes a healthy heart and the best exercises you can do at any fitness level.
What is a Healthy Heart?
Though it is only about the size of your fist, the heart is one heck of a muscle. The average heart expands and contracts about 100,000 times daily, pumping close to 2,000 gallons of blood throughout the body, providing your body with oxygen and crucial nutrients.
But how do you know if your heart is healthy?
The most accurate measure of cardiovascular fitness, VO2 max is a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that a person can use, measured in milliliters per kilogram per minute, and it is the most accurate measure of cardiovascular fitness.
For those in their 20s, the average VO2 max is about 43 mL/kg/min for women and 54 mL/kg/min for men. This number drops about 7% every 10 years; so for women and men in their 30s, the average is 40 mL/kg/min and 49 mL/kg/min respectively, 38 mL/kg/min and 47 mL/kg/min for those in their 40s, and 34 mL/kg/min and 42 mL/kg/min for those in their 50s.
To estimate your VO2 max, you can check out this test by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
You should also know your “numbers” – the three key heart health numbers you need to track.
Blood Pressure. Blood pressure measures the force of blood against the arteries as the heart bumps blood out (systolic pressure) and the same pressure between heartbeats as the heart pumps blood in (diastolic). Normal blood pressure is below 120/80.
Cholesterol Levels. Cholesterol levels can predict your heart attack risk, so your total cholesterol should be 200 mg/dL or lower. And when cholesterol and blood fats are measured for your “lipid profile” score, three numbers are looked at: HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. HDL (“good” cholesterol) should be 50 mg/dL or higher for women and 40 mg/dL or higher for men. LDL should be 100 mg/dL or lower and closer to 70 mg/dL if you’ve been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or have other risk factors such as diabetes. Finally, triglycerides should measure lower than 150 mg/dL.
Waist Size. Measurement of the waist (taken around the belly button) is a better predictor of heart disease risk than weight or BMI. A waist size of 35 inches or greater in women and 40 inches or greater in men increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and high cholesterol.
Exercising for Heart Health
Whether you’re estimated to have an age-appropriate VO2 max or not, and whether your “numbers” are good or not-so-good, heart-healthy workouts should be a part of your lifestyle to maintain or improve your heart health.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that for overall cardiovascular health, you engage in:
At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week, for a total of 150 minutes
At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week, for a total of 75 minutes,
Moderate-to-high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits.
If you’re looking to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, you should engage in an average of 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity 3 or 4 times per week. If you haven’t exercised in quite a while, work up toward your exercise goals to increase your chance of continued success. And always consult your physician before embarking on a new exercise program.
Best Heart-Healthy Exercises
Three types of exercise are best for heart health: stretching exercise, aerobic exercise, and strength training.
Stretching helps muscles prepare for activity, prevent injury and strain, and increase range of motion and flexibility. But new research shows that flexible muscles are linked to flexible arteries – key for keeping blood pressure at appropriate levels. Stretching exercises have also been shown to help reduce stress and inflammation, lowering cardiovascular risk.
Yoga. Yoga is low impact and helps stretch muscles while building strength, especially in the core, and toning muscles. It can also help lower blood pressure, increase lung capacity, improve respiratory function and heart rate, and boost circulation.
Pilates. Pilates offers many of the same benefits as yoga, but is different in that instead of moving from one posture to another, you move through a series of movements that are more active, methodical, and anatomically based. And like yoga, while it does not fulfill the aerobic activity component, it can be an excellent adjunct.
Also known as “cardio,” aerobic exercises utilize many muscle groups, strengthen the heart and lungs, and improve VO2 max.
Walking. Brisk walking, where you walk at a fast pace – is a great low-impact workout at a moderate intensity level. It’s pleasant and easy to do, whether it’s on a treadmill, at the gym, or even around your block. Have a dog? Take it with you and knock out two activities at once!
Running. While it’s more challenging than walking, running is an effective aerobic activity that burns lots of calories. To really work your cardiovascular system, run in intervals: run at maximum intensity for 10 seconds, then slow down and recover at a slower pace. Then repeat the 10-second interval, until you can work your way up to 10 intervals. This type of training will help keep blood flowing and help oxygen reach muscles.
Swimming. Not really a runner? Swimming is another highly recommended low-impact full-body workout. The water provides resistance that improves muscle strength. And swimming laps in a pool elevates heart rate and improves heart health. Try different strokes to work different muscle groups and to keep things interesting.
Cycling. Prefer to work out on a bike? Great, because a 2011 study by the British Medical Association found that regular cycling – about 20 miles per week – could cut the risk of coronary heart disease in half. Cycling also helps elevate heart rate and can help you lose weight, reducing your cardiovascular risk even further. An added bonus? You can cycle indoors or out as you prefer.
Other Total-Body, Non-impact Sports. There are countless other aerobic exercises that can work out the whole body. After all, the more muscles you use, the harder your heart has to work, and that results in a stronger heart. Using an elliptical machine at the gym, dancing, rowing, and going cross-country skiing or snow shoeing are just some of the healthy but fun aerobic activities you can try.
Strength Training Exercises
Strength training exercises help you build and maintain muscle mass, and this is important because muscle helps remove triglycerides from the bloodstream and helps prevent artery hardening. Building lean muscle mass also helps you maintain a healthy weight and lower blood pressure.
Weight Training. Training with weights is crucial for people with heart disease. It helps burn fat and is also good for bone and heart health. Your heart rate increases during repetitions, making it a surprisingly effective form of heart exercise. Doing 5 to 10 strength training exercises in sets, going from lower weight and higher repetitions quickly will be even more effective.
Every little activity you do will contribute to a healthier, stronger heart. Whether you’re out in the garden weeding, vacuuming your house, going up and down the stairs while cleaning, or running around taking care of errands, these bursts of activity are much better for you than just sitting and being sedentary. And with your new knowledge of the exercises necessary to keep your heart working at its maximum potential, you’ll only improve your heart and overall health even more. So the next time you’re moving, take a moment to consider how important your heart is, and use it as motivation to keep it and yourself going!
Updated January 28, 2016
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.