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Exercise and Heart Health: Every Little Bit Counts

Exercise and Heart Health: Every Little Bit Counts 
: Main Image
Take the first half of your lunch break to go for a brisk walk
Not all of us are cut out to be marathon runners or super athletes, but everyone can get some amount of physical activity, and every little bit you get adds to the health of your heart. That's according to a new meta-analysis of the research on exercise and cardiac risk, which found that people who are physically active but don't meet the current minimum recommendation of 2.5 hours per week still have a lower risk of heart disease than people who don't exercise at all--and the more you exercise, the more you benefit.

Putting numbers on the benefits

The meta-analysis, published in Circulation, included data from 33 studies that examined the relationship between leisure time physical activity and cardiac risk. The combined data showed the following:

  • People who were moderately active for an average of 30 minutes five times per week, or a total of 2.5 hours per week, had a 14% lower cardiac risk than people who were not active.
  • People who were physically active for a total of 1.25 hours per week, half of the minimum recommended level, also had a 14% lower risk than non-physically active people.
  • 60 minutes of moderate activity five times per week, or 6 hours per week, was associated with a 20% risk reduction.
  • 2.5 hours of moderate activity five times per week, or 12.5 hours per week, was associated with a 25% risk reduction.
  • Physical activity protected women more than men.

Some is better than none, and more is better yet

Referring to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the authors of the analysis said, "These findings provide quantitative data supporting US physical activity guidelines that stipulate that 'some physical activity is better than none' and 'additional benefits occur with more physical activity.'"

Since 1995, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has included advice on physical activity. In 2008, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans was developed as a separate set of recommendations in light of the wealth of evidence that physical activity is essential to a long and healthy life. The focus of the guidelines is on health-enhancing activities--those that are above and beyond the light-intensity physical activity that is part of daily life. Examples include brisk walking, jumping rope, dancing, lifting weights, cycling, and practicing yoga.

Ten minutes at a time

In the interest of your heart, if you don't exercise at all, start small and increase slowly, and if you exercise some, think about ways to do a little more. Here are some tips to help you get in a few extra minutes:

  • Try getting off the bus a couple of stops early or parking a few blocks from your destination and walking the rest of the way.
  • Take a look at your weekly errands and appointments--is walking or cycling an option for doing any of these?
  • Think about walking or cycling to work a few days per week.
  • Take the first half of your lunch break to go for a brisk walk.
  • Consider going to an exercise class or finding a walking companion. A social component could make your exercise routine more enjoyable.

(Circulation 2001; 124:789-95)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice on Cortes Island in British Columbia, Canada, and has done extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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