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Heart Health and the Couch Potato: Sit at Your Own Risk

Posted Aug 12 2010 1:22pm

Guest Post Submitted by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center


Just Move

We’ve all made the excuses…you can’t face the drive to the gym, you’re too tired at night, getting up in the morning is a chore or it’s too hot or cold outside. So you cozy up on the couch in front of the television. If you’re a couch potato, you’re a gambler — with your life.

Unfortunately you’ll need a big sofa because you’re not the only one whose heart isn’t in physical activity. About 60 percent of adults in the U.S. are not getting the exercise they need, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General .

It’s time to get up and face…or better yet…dance to… the music! Here are a few facts that may get you moving for your heart’s sake.

Risks of Physical Inactivity

If your idea of exercise is pressing a button on the remote, check out these facts:

Heart-Health Benefits of an Active Lifestyle

Still not convinced? Here are a few facts that describe the heart-health benefits of an active lifestyle.

  • For each hour you spend walking, you can gain two hours of life expectancy. Source
  • More than half of the participants in a study who jogged two miles a day were able to stop taking blood pressure medication . Source
  • Taking a brisk one-hour walk, five days a week can cut your risk for stroke in half. Source
  • People with an active lifestyle have a 45 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than sedentary people. Source

So you’ve decided to get up and get moving. Now what?

Relax. Going from flab to fit doesn’t have to take lots of time and effort. You don’t need to join a gym, work out for hours or hire a fitness coach.

To stay heart-healthy and fit, the American Heart Association recommends moderate exercise for just 30 minutes, five days a week. If 30 minutes of exercise is daunting, breaking it up into two or three 10-15 minute sessions is better than nothing.

“Any activity that gets you up and moving is good,” says Dr. Ernest Gervino , director of the Clinical Physiology Lab at the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “It’s best to exercise at a pace that feels comfortable, and let that be your guide. You don’t have to work out at a high-intensity level—in fact for those who have been sedentary, complications or injury may occur if you move too fast.”

Dr. Gervino is a bit skeptical of frequently-issued assurances that exercise in several small increments is just as good as one longer session. Healthy individuals should work a bit harder during short time spurts to make them count, he says. “If you’re working out at a slower pace, increase frequency to seven days a week. If you are pushing yourself a faster pace, the frequency can be reduced to three days a week.”


Here are some tips to ensure that you’re working out at a pace that’s beneficial, yet safe.

  • Avoid activities that make you grunt or strain. This type of strain occurs when you bear down and momentarily stop breathing to lift weights or do sit-ups or push-ups, etc., and may be harmful, particularly if you have had heart surgery in the past.
  • A good rule of thumb is to increase your activity so you breathe hard but can still carry on a conversation. If you feel your heart pounding but can speak at length, you are working out at a safe level of activity.
  • If you’re not used to exercising, don’t do too much too soon. Start with 10 minutes of light exercise or a brisk walk every day and gradually increase duration and intensity of your activities.
  • Be alert for signs of physical distress, such as discomfort in your arm, back, neck, jaw or chest or severe shortness of breath lasting more than five minutes. (Contact medical help or 911 immediately if you are concerned.)
  • If you have a chronic health condition such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, asthma or other health conditions, be sure to talk with your doctor about the physical activity that is best for you.

Reverses Some Heart Disease Risk Factors

Exercise improves heart health and can even reverse some heart disease risk factors,” said Dr. Gervino. “The heart, like all muscles, becomes stronger as a result of exercise, which allows it to pump more blood through the body with each beat. This allows the heart to work effectively while beating slower.”

Lowers Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels

Being active also promotes vigorous blood circulation, which keeps blood vessels open and flexible. Regular exercise reduces inflammation in the arteries and can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Helps Prevent Diabetes

Cardiac fitness also improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. This helps to prevent diabetes, which is a major cause of blood vessel damage and vascular complications that can lead to heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.

”Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a catastrophic event, such as a heart attack, to motivate a person to change their lifestyle,” said Dr. Gervino. “It’s best to pay attention to blood test results, current weight and energy levels—be alert to signs that your body is not at its best so you can take action before you get a medical wake-up call.”

The facts are clear. Regular physical activity enables your heart and your body to function at their best. So get up and go for a walk. C’mon, you can do it. The first step to a healthier you is exactly that…taking a step.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

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Posted August 2010 “This article originally appeared on Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s HeartMail enewsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here . To subscribe to future issues, click here.

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We’d love to hear from you.  What type of exercise do you get?

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