How much exercise do you need to fight heart disease? Is an hour breaking a sweat at the gym what you need? Or will 30 minutes gardening or 15 minutes walking around the block suffice?
While it has been well known that exercise is important in keeping your heart healthy, there has been debate as to just how much is beneficial. A study reported in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, shows that several short sessions of exercise may help as much as a single long workout - as long as the total amount of exercise is the same.
Another recent study found that vigorous exercise is more beneficial than moderate levels for fighting heart disease. Both studies included participants in the Harvard Alumni Study. The first study looked at 7,307 men whose average age was 66. The second study surveyed 12,516 men with an average age of 57.
Make 15 minutes count
"Physical activity does not have to be arduously long to be beneficial," says researcher Howard D. Sesso, Sc.D., of the department of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, where the study was conducted. "Short sessions lasting 15-minutes appear to be helpful. This may provide some impetus for sedentary individuals to take up physical activity."
Sesso says you don't need to be an Olympic athlete to reap the benefits of exercise, but you do need to push yourself to get your heart rate up.
He says researchers found a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction of heart disease risk for people participating in greater amounts of vigorous exercise each week, such as running, jogging, swimming laps, tennis or aerobics. Those who participated in moderate activities, such as walking, yard work, golf or social dancing, had a 10 percent risk reduction.
What makes exercise so good for the heart? Richard Stein, M.D., cardiologist and professor of medicine at State University of New York Health Center, Brooklyn, says exercise is good for the heart because it helps increase the HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol) in the blood. The HDL cholesterol is a marker of lower heart disease, and it can help drop the LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol), which increases the chances of getting a fatty buildup inside the arteries.
Stein, who is also a spokesman for the American Heart Association, says exercise also helps make the endothelial cells that line our arteries healthier. Endothelial cells are vital in preventing the clogging and hardening of the arteries.
Shorter workouts provide more incentive
Evidence that short sessions of exercise help the heart is good news for those who haven't been exercising. If you are just beginning, you can start off slowly by breaking your exercise into smaller time segments and still get the benefit. Stein says this is better than trying to be too ambitious the first time out, which can often result in a sore back or sore muscles and prompt you to stop doing everything.
"It also takes the excuse away that you have no time," Stein says. "It's just rare to find someone who can't do this." If you exercise for 10 minutes three times a day, or 15 minutes two times a day, you're still getting in a half hour of exercise, which is beneficial, he says.
What kind of exercise
Aerobic exercise is what hearts like best. It makes the heart become stronger and work more efficiently. You can get an aerobic workout from numerous activities, such as:
- Brisk walking
In addition to these activities, an aerobic workout can be achieved in a specially designed aerobic dance class or by using exercise machines (stationary bikes, treadmills, stair-steppers, rowing machines, just to name a few) that can be found at a local gym or health club.
Whether you chose to do one of these activities or something moderate such as walking, yard work, or golf, "the important thing, apparently, is just to do it," says Sesso.