The Over-Under on Exercise Amount and Heart Health

The Under:

They say life is all about moderation, whether it comes to eating, spending, or working – but what about exercising? There is no doubt that too little exercise leads to heart problems such as coronary artery disease, strokes, high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Sadly, most Americans are not exercising enough!

According to a recent study, the trend in exercise has been on a downward direction. The study, which surveyed people from 1988 to 2010, reported participants doing far less overall activity in their free time. During that span, the percentage of men who claimed they did no exercise increased from 11% to 43%, and for women increased from 19% to 52%.

The Over:

You might find it surprising that there may be heart problems associated with too much exercise. A recent report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that light joggers had a lower rate of dying than strenuous joggers. In fact, the strenuous joggers seemed to have the same risk of dying as someone who never exercises. Does this mean that running more is just as deadly as sitting on the couch? Probably not. The study was weakened significantly by the fact that there were very few strenuous joggers versus light joggers making comparisons between the two groups difficult. The jury is still out on the effects of too much exercise on the heart but there is no doubt that even light exercise is better than sitting on your couch!

Hitting the Sweet Spot:

So how much exercise should we strive for to improve heart health? The American Heart Association has published guidelines that include:

  • 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise over at least 5 days each week or:
  • 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise over at least 3 days each week plus:
  • Moderate to vigorous intensity muscle strengthening exercise at least 2 days each week.

How do we know if we’re doing the right intensity of exercise? There’s an easy test called the talk test! If you can speak in only a few words before feeling out of breath you are doing vigorous activity. If you can speak in only a few sentences you are doing moderate activity.

And remember, exercise can involve more than just running. Pick your favorite team sport or a different aerobic activity like swimming. Even walking your dog, gardening, shopping and dancing will help you move, burn calories, and improve your heart’s fitness!

Running out of Gas:

While the jury is still out on the long-term effects of too much exercise on the heart, it is true that high levels of exercise can pose some non-heart related risks such as:

  • Muscle and joint injury
  • Overtraining syndrome
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Insomnia

None of these risks should stop you from exercising because the overall benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks. However, it is always important to remember to allow your body time to recover after exercise. For moderate intensity exercise, make sure you leave 1-2 days each week where you completely rest your body and let your muscles, joints, and immune system rebuild to become even stronger. For vigorous exercise, it’s even more important to rest frequently allowing your body one day of complete rest after each exercise session.

The Bottom Line:

Exercise is a key part of a healthy heart and should be a part of nearly everyone’s life. If you have any questions regarding the safety of exercise for you, just ask your doctor. The question of the ideal amount of exercise is not known but we do know that most Americans don’t do enough of it. Find exercises that are fun or a part of your daily life and try to do them with others. Exercise regularly, give it your best, and one thing is certain – you will experience wonderful benefits for your heart, health and life!

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