“You have six months to get these numbers under control, or I’m putting you on cholesterol medicine.” Those were the words my doctor used eight years ago at a routine checkup. Three months postpartum, 75 pounds overweight and a total cholesterol in the “high” category, I knew it was time to get my body moving.
Three years prior to that appointment, my dad died suddenly from a heart attack. He battled high cholesterol most of his adult life and lived several decades on cholesterol-lowering medicine. While he did make some lifestyle changes before his death, they came too little too late.
After that routine checkup, I ditched all of the excuses, put my health first and went back to the one thing that has always helped control my cholesterol: exercise.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cardiovascular disease causes 1 in 3 deaths in women each year. But that’s not even the scariest statistic: Only 1 in 5 American women believe that heart disease is her greatest threat.
The good news: We are talking about this epidemic more now than ever and pushing for better screening, awareness and prevention.
One tool that continues to gain popularity for its heart-health benefits is exercise. This simple and free prevention measure is easy to access and has endless benefits for your physical and mental health. Plus, it helps to manage high blood pressure and cholesterol, decreases the risk of developing high cholesterol and blood pressure, reduces stress and helps to manage your weight.
It’s not an understatement to say that I wanted to literally run home from that checkup eight years ago. While I didn't hit the pavement that day, I did dust off my running shoes and start walking four to five days per week. After pushing a double stroller for six months, I started running.
Why walking and running? Well, consistent aerobic exercise has been the only constant in my life that has helped control my cholesterol level and, consequently, lower my risk of having a heart attack. But any physical activity that makes you move, increases your heart rate to a safe level and is sustainable for at least 30 minutes will deliver heart-health benefits. And the experts agree.
Dr. Amnon Beniaminovitz, a cardiologist at Manhattan Cardiology, says the heart loves to be challenged aerobically. For heart-health benefits, he recommends aerobic exercises including walking, jogging, swimming or biking. “One of the simplest, positive changes you can make to effectively improve your heart health is to start walking,” he tells SheKnows. It’s enjoyable, free, easy, social and great exercise.
Plus, “aerobic exercise lowers blood pressure, raises the good HDL cholesterol and lowers the bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, improves glucose utilization and lowers your percent of body fat,” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SheKnows.
“Having high blood pressure over time can lead to a stiff heart that has to work harder,” Beniaminovitz explains. A stiff hardworking heart requires more energy and is more susceptible to damage when blood supply is low or obstructed.
Also, having high cholesterol causes blocked arteries, which can lead to a heart attack. Beniaminovitz says aerobic exercise reduces rates of abnormal heart rhythms by training the heart to be less sensitive and reactive to stimulation.
But it’s not just aerobic exercise that benefits our hearts. Resistance or strength training is also important in the fight against heart disease in women. Lifting weights or using your body weight for resistance increases blood flow and may lead to longer-lasting blood pressure control. That’s why Carol Michaels, a nationally recognized exercise specialist and the founder of Recovery Fitness, uses it with her clients.
Michaels also boasts about the benefits of resistance training to increase muscle mass, which will help in weight control. She says your resistance or strength training program should include exercises that strengthen every major muscle group, such as squats, lunges, leg lifts, planks, push-ups and numerous core-strengthening exercises.
All it takes is 30 minutes of physical activity five days per week to reap the rewards of this heart-healthy prescription for wellness. If 30 minutes at one time is too much, consider breaking that chunk into smaller segments of two 15-minute sessions.
Further, the American Heart Association says people who would benefit from lowering their blood pressure or cholesterol should participate in aerobic exercise 40 minutes three to four times a week. This seems to be ideal for lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke.
This is the minimum for optimal health. In fact, Beniaminovitz tells his patients to exercise daily. He suggests a combination of 40 minutes of aerobic exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity three to four times a week — and on the non-aerobic days, some core training or resistance training — as the best combination.
But also bear in mind that doing even some exercise is better than nothing — your heart will appreciate the effort!
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