If you or a loved one is living with a CVD (cardiovascular disease), exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your heart health. Physical activity helps you live longer, maintain weight, feel better mentally and physically, and can reduce the risk of complications due to heart disease by up to 50%. However, living with CVD can be overwhelming, especially if you are relatively new to an exercise routine. You or your loved one may feel uncertain as to where to start and not know how much activity is healthy and safe. Rest assured, most forms of moderate exercise are 100% safe and effective, and can safely progressively increase over time to more strenuous levels of exercise, if this is your ultimate goal. 

Top key benefits of exercise for CVD

  • Increase blood flow to small blood vessels around heart thus promoting healthy blood flow and circulation
  • Increase levels of HDL (the “good” cholesterol), which in turn lowers heart disease risk by flushing artery clogging LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) out of the body
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Enhance insulin sensitivity (body responsiveness to insulin and food), thus making it easier to metabolize foods in a more efficient and healthier way
  • Promotes calorie burning and weight management
  • Lower BMI, increased muscle mass (overall enhanced/healthier body composition)
  • Improved breathing
  • Physical adaptiveness and ease of recovery to every day strenuous challenges
  • Overall enhanced health

Where to begin?

Depending on your level of activity, health goals and physical requirements, for many people, it is easiest to start with regular walking or other cardiovascular gentle exercises. Set a realistic and attainable target for your daily exercise goal to start (eg. 15min), and slowly add a few minutes every day until your body is used to and comfortable with the longer duration. Remember to begin with a slow and easy pace. You may need to plan rest areas or places to stop and sit along the way. This model can be used for any sort of cardio exercise, eg. walking, jogging, biking, stationary bike, water walking and swimming. 

How to test intensity?

Keep the pace of exercise at a sustained level and use the “talk test” as a measure of your level of heart strain. This is an easy, free and fast way to monitor exercise intensity without the need of any equipment. Essentially, it gauges your ability to speak during your activity, if you can comfortably conduct a conversation, your intensity level is low to moderate, if you can speak but become somewhat out of breath after 30-60 seconds, you intensity level is moderate, if you struggle to speak at all and gasp for air, your intensity level is vigorous. To begin with, you do not want to go too strenuously, or beyond your ability, start slowly and aim to increase the pace, duration and challenge level over a period of time, to allow your body to adapt in a healthy, safe way to the activity. 

How much time to commit?

The American Heart Association recommends 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times per week to promote cardiovascular fitness, or at least 30 minutes of light to moderate activity 5-7 days of the week. Physical activity recommendations for adults are therefore at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, or an equivalent combination. Increases in physical activity by any level are associated with reduced cardiovascular risk. Moderate activities include walking, climbing stairs, gardening, yard work, moderate-to-heavy housework, dancing, yoga and home exercise. More vigorous aerobic activities include brisk walking, running, swimming, biking, roller skating and jumping rope (with a goal of three or four times a week for 30-60 minutes) are best for improving the fitness of the heart and lungs.

Always do 5 minutes of dynamic stretching or moving around to warm up your muscles and heart before any exercise, as well as static stretches to release your muscles post exercise. This helps enhance muscle health/functionality, improves muscle performance, reduces the risk of injury and speeds muscle healing and recovery.

Should I lift weights as well?

Unless it has been contraindicated by your doctor or other medical professional, resistance training (weight training) is also very effective, safe, and highly recommended as part of enhancing your heart health. In fact, it can significantly reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack, and improves overall physical ability. Most compellingly (according to a recent clinical study reported by Harvard Medical), weight training of at least 60 minutes per week (using free weights or weight machines) can lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared, with those who did not exercise, by 40% to 70%, similar results to those who perform cardiovascular exercise alone. Therefore, if you prefer weight training to cardio, you can certainly benefit from both in equal measure.

If you are new to weight training, start with light to moderate weights (1-15lbs), with less repetitions, for example, 2-3 sets of 7-10 reps. As a general rule and test, the third set should be challenging to finish, but not impossible, and it should not be painful beyond regular muscle exertion and strain. Slowly increase resistance amount over time for safe and effective results.

How to implement this in practice?

Before commencing any new exercise routine, always consult with your medical professional for guidance and advice as to what level of intensity and frequency is optimal for you given your age, health and ability. Also, consider enlisting the help of a personal trainer to help you with an exercise schedule, routine and program, to safely and effectively make fitness and exercise a part of your routine. Exercise should be fun and challenging, but not overwhelming. Prioritizing health and wellness is always an important goal and should be incorporated in your wellness routine.