Get Moving: How Exercise Can Help Heart Health (and brain health, too!)

heart health

You’ve heard it all before – exercise is important! And as a family caregiver, health is even more crucial – especially heart health. But knowing and doing are sometimes very different things. Most people aren’t getting the recommended amount of physical activity, which may not have as many consequences for young people (yet). But as you age, exercise becomes less of a“should” and more of a “must” if you want to stay healthy and help your loved ones stay healthy as well.

The impact of exercise shouldn’t be disregarded. Two of the most common causes of death and hospitalization involve the heart and the brain, and the risks for both can be reduced by exercise. Take a few minutes to get educated on just how important exercise is for your brain and heart health, and perhaps it will be just the push you need to get yourself and your loved ones moving.

Exercise and heart health

Physical activity benefits the heart in many ways. Here are just a few:

  1. Exercise helps you control your weight – Carrying extra weight stresses the heart and is a major risk factor for cardiac issues and stroke. When combined with healthy eating, exercise is a crucial part of losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight.
  2. Exercise lowers blood pressure – High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. The effect of exercise is similar to that of a beta-blocker medication, which slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. This effect occurs whether you are at rest or moving.
  3. Exercise can help strengthen muscles – Johns Hopkins explains that a combination of aerobic workouts (which, depending on your fitness level, can include walking, running, swimming, and other vigorous heart-pumping exercises) and strength training (weight lifting, resistance training) is considered best for heart health. These exercises improve the muscles’ ability to draw oxygen from the circulating blood. That reduces the need for the heart—a muscular organ itself—to work harder to pump more blood to the muscles, whatever your age.
  4. Exercise lowers stress – Stress can wreak havoc on your health in a variety of ways, and can play a role in causing heart conditions, as well as prevent full recovery after a heart procedure. Some people respond to stress by smoking, drinking alcohol, and overeating, which can result in high blood pressure and damage to the walls of your arteries. Exercise counteracts the stress hormones that are released in the body, reducing its impact. It also releases hormones called endorphins that improve your mood.
  5. Exercise reduces inflammation – With regular activity the body adapts to the challenge of exercise which can help reduce chronic inflammation.

Exercise and brain health

Performing exercises helps reduce insulin resistance and inflammation and stimulates the release of growth factors. Growth factors are brain chemicals that have an impact on the health, growth and survival of your brain cells, and help new blood vessels grow in the brain. It also helps reduce anxiety and stress and improves mood and sleep, which has an indirect benefit. These factors have been known to contribute to cognitive issues.

“Cardio” exercises like walking, biking, and swimming raise your heart rate which increases the flow of blood to the brain. When you breathe harder and faster, more oxygen is pumped into your bloodstream and delivered to your brain. This stimulates the production of neurons, which increases your brain volume and helps the parts of your brain that control thinking and memory.

Added benefits

Your brain and heart aren’t the only beneficiaries of exercise. Check out this list of additional benefits of physical activity from Cardio Smart:

  • Improves mood and reduces depression by boosting “feel-good” hormones called endorphins.
  • Promotes sleep.
  • Keeps stress levels in check.
  • Builds lean muscle mass, which helps you burn calories even when you’re not exercising.
  • Improves balance and prevents falls, especially among older people.
  • Lowers blood sugar levels, which helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Helps prevent osteoporosis and arthritis.
  • Helps prevent some types of cancer and may improve the body’s response to cancer treatments.
  • May ward off dementia, or at least delay its onset.
  • Can help you build a healthier lifestyle overall. Research shows that people who exercise regularly are less likely to smoke and tend to choose healthier food options.

How to incorporate exercise

It’s important that you consult your physician before starting an exercise routine either for yourself, or your loved one. They will be able to advise you on an appropriate amount of activity and what exercises make sense for you. But in general, guidelines suggest that adults should aim for 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise and two sessions of resistance (strength training) exercise per week.

If starting an exercise routine seems daunting, start small! Remember that some activity is better than none. And getting started will help build your confidence and stamina to increase your activity later if it is appropriate. Johns Hopkins shares some tips for incorporating activity into your daily routine:

  • Park your car at the far end of a parking lot, so you have farther to walk to a building’s entrance.
  • Choose the stairs rather than the elevator.
  • Spend part of your lunch break walking.
  • Wake up a bit earlier and exercise before you do anything else.
  • Use a wearable fitness tracker to count your steps. Try increasing your daily steps by 500 each week with the goal of reaching 10,000 steps per day, a level that can produce many health benefits.

An exercise routine for your aging parent will probably look a little different. Again, seeking their doctor’s advice before starting to incorporate more activity is crucial. If your schedule doesn’t allow you to assist or support them in an exercise routine, consider bringing in an in-home caregiver to help. They can also help with healthy meal preparation, medication reminders, transportation to medical appointments, and social interaction – all of which help contribute to better heart and brain health!

References:

  • Psychology Today – Why Exercise Is Good for Your Brain
  • Cardio Smart – Exercise and Heart Health
  • Johns Hopkins – 7 Heart Benefits of Exercise
  • Harvard Health Blog – Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skill

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