"If you are doing nothing, do something. And if you are doing something, say, walking 10 or 15 minutes, two to three times a week, do more," said Barry Franklin, director of the preventive cardiology program at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., and an American Heart Association spokesman.
Moderate physical activity includes walking briskly, gardening, playing doubles tennis or dancing. Vigorous activity includes jogging, swimming laps, hiking uphill or jumping rope, although researchers did not analyze whether or not exercising vigorously was any better than moderate exercise for improving heart health.
Prior research has pointed to myriad benefits of physical activity, Franklin said. Getting up and moving strengthens the heart and the lungs.
Physically fit people also tend to have lower blood pressure and resting heart rate, which puts less demand on the heart. Exercise can increase insulin sensitivity, which is important in the prevention of diabetes, and can modestly boost HDL ("good") cholesterol.
Other studies suggest that exercise reduces inflammatory markers that may play a role in triggering heart attacks; may reduce the likelihood of clots that lead to heart attacks and stroke; and decreases the risk of life-threatening arrhythmias (irregular heart beat).
Yet physical activity, of course, isn't the sole key to preventing heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a normal body weight, avoiding high levels of stress, and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in a healthy range all play a role, he added.
Just as important as an exercise program is getting physical activity while going about your day, Franklin said. Recent research has suggested that it's not only structured exerc
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