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Four ways exercise helps your heart

Looking for more reasons to exercise? Here’s a big one: your heart health.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the US. The four main ways to prevent heart disease are eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and getting regular exercise.

Exercise does the whole body good, but here is how it helps your heart:

  1. Burns calories: If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop heart disease, even if you have no other risk factors. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight will help to lower your risk of heart disease. Excess weight can contribute to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which in turn may force the heart to work extra hard to circulate blood to the body.
  2. Lowers blood pressure: High blood pressure can stretch and damage arteries, increasing the risk of blood clots and cholesterol buildup. Over time, heart attack, stroke and heart failure are all potential risks.
  3. Lowers cholesterol: Exercise can lower your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Cholesterol circulates through the blood and high LDL levels can narrow and stiffen your arteries. If a blood clot forms, a heart attack or stroke can result.
  4. Lowers stress: Exercise has been proven to reduce stress. Experts aren’t sure if stress plays a direct role in heart disease, but they believe it affects other potentially heart-damaging behaviors such as overeating, smoking, physical inactivity and heavy drinking. All of these can increase blood pressure and damage arteries.

To lower your risk of heart disease and increase your chances of living longer, the Centers for Disease Control recommends 2½ hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or an hour and 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.

What counts?

For moderate exercise, try these activities:

  • Brisk walking
  • Dancing
  • Riding a bike mainly on flat ground
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Raking leaves

Here’s what qualifies as intense exercise:

  • Jogging or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Riding a bike fast or on hills
  • Playing singles tennis
  • Playing basketball

In general, start slowly and gradually build your activity level. If you haven’t been active for a while and you aren’t sure where to begin, talk with your health care provider about an exercise plan that fits your health and lifestyle.

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