From its first beat some 21 days after you’re conceived to its last on your dying day, your ticker expands and contracts without pause — that’s exhausting, if you consider how quickly your hand would tire if you opened and closed it non-stop. Fortunately your cardiac muscle is up to the task. Unlike your skeletal muscles, which don’t have large storage cells for energy, a healthy heart receives just the right amount of fuel to maintain a perpetual pulse — good news for the rest of your body, which relies on the constant, automatic delivery of blood to sustain health.
But with cardiovascular disease still claiming more lives than any other cause, it’s clear your pump can poop out. Certain risk factors like age, heredity, poor diet, smoking (even second-hand), drinking, stress, and a sedentary lifestyle increase the chances of arterial plaque buildup, inflammation, and blood clots — deadly time bombs that can lead to heart attack and stroke without notice. And when you combine several risk factors, your odds of developing coronary problems jump significantly.
Active Cardiovascular Care
Fortunately, a regular walking routine may be your best weapon in battling the culprits of heart disease. Physical activity not only reins in blood pressure and cholesterol, while keeping the pounds at bay, it also lowers your risk for diabetes — a condition that weakens the heart.
Walking has even more benefits. Low-impact and low-intensity, it invites nearly anyone to take part — including those with heart problems. A University of Vermont College of Medicine study found that cardiac patients who burned 3000–3500 calories/week in a long-distance walking rehabilitation demonstrated more improvement in weight loss, cardio-respiratory fitness, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, and blood pressure than those who burned only 800 calories/week in traditional therapy.
But even 30 minutes of walking a day can be enough to keep your heart happy. One study found that a half-hour hike lowered heart risk in individuals with pre-diabetes and diabetes more than the diabetes drug Metformin.
Walk and Rate
While any movement will fortify your valves, you can maximize the benefits with these tips:
Aim for your target heart rate — the point where your heart is being conditioned but not overworked. Experts suggest
subtracting your age from 220 to determine your maximum rate and then multiplying that number by .70 and .85 to define your target heart rate range. You can measure your heart rate during aerobic activity by using a heart rate monitor, or by placing your pointer and index finger over your neck or wrist and taking your pulse for 1 minute.
Monitor your respiration. The amount of oxygen your body uses during exercise helps determine overall cardio-respiratory fitness. Those who reach a high level of oxygen consumption during activity have a high CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor) rating, which some studies suggest correlates to lower incidence of heart attack and stroke. While an exercise stress test is your best assessment tool, you can gauge your intensity by keeping tabs on your breathing. If you can’t speak at all without becoming winded, bring it down a tad. If you’re chatting away, step it up.
Alternate intervals. Recent research suggests that varied intensity during physical activity may benefit the heart more than a sustained exertion level. Pick up the pace for short durations, followed by slower recovery periods. Hike up an incline, such as a ramp or a hill, or march up and down a set of stairs to bump up your cardio challenge.
Remember, your heart works hard to keep you alive… isn’t it time you did the same for it?