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How Exercise Can Extend Your Heart and Your Years 

How Exercise Can Extend Your Heart and Your Years 
By Alan Reisinger, MD, FACP

Let me fill you in on a little secret: There are many things that will help you live a longer, healthier life. You can eat a better diet (and you should), which will help you manage your weight, lower your blood sugar and keep your cholesterol in check.

You can manage stress, which will take a load off your heart and your mind. You can find good, lifelong friends and spend time with them, and you can focus on your mental health.

You can sleep for 7 to 8 hours a night. And you can give up vices such as drinking too much or smoking. All these things can potentially add years to your life.

One thing that can really unlock more years: Exercise. Exercise can help you live longer and enjoy the years you live. That’s because exercise is essential to health span, the period of life that we live without chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, depression – even cancer.

Exercise is particularly helpful in preventing heart disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S. And it’s helpful in ways you might not expect.

Sure, aerobic or cardio activities strengthens our lungs and heart, which is needed. But it also helps us manage our weight and lowers our risks for diseases that can damage our heart like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Exercise promotes insulin sensitivity. Insulin is the hormone that helps our bodies turn the sugar in food into energy. Think of it as a key that unlocks cell doors and allows the sugar (glucose) in our blood to enter.

Once inside, glucose helps power our cells. But if it can’t get in, our glucose levels rise, causing lots of damage. It’s called insulin resistance. Unfortunately, about 38 percent of Americans have insulin sensitivity issues.

If left unchecked, insulin resistance can progress to type 2 diabetes, which can shorten your life and hurt your heart. The number one complication of diabetes is heart disease.

Exercise can help you manage your cholesterol. Regular physical activity has been shown to increase our HDL cholesterol (the good type), while intense exercise has been shown to reduce our bad or LDL cholesterol. 

Intense aerobic exercise, for example, helps clear out LDL and triglycerides, while resistance training like lifting weights positively influences HDL levels. So, it’s good to get a mix of both cardio and resistance training when you exercise.

Exercise helps lower high blood pressure. Hypertension affects nearly half the adults in the U.S. Over time, high blood pressure increases our risk for heart attack, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.

As with cholesterol, we have medications that help reduce blood pressure, but exercise is also effective therapy. And, like cholesterol, the type of exercise doesn’t matter. Both aerobic and resistance training help with hypertension. And studies have demonstrated that the combination of exercise types helps as well.

Exercise even helps thin our blood. Chronic exercise whether aerobic or resistance has been shown to increase the volume of plasma in our blood, naturally thinning it. This thinning happens in the hours and days after working out and may lessen the risk for bloods clots. Making sure you hydrate effectively also improves blood volume following exercise.

The cardiovascular benefits of exercise don’t just stop there. Exercise also helps other chemical processes that protect and nurture our heart and blood vessels.

Of course, exercise isn’t just good for our heart. It’s good for our whole body – and this is true even as we age. A recent study of adults over 65 found that those who participated in activities like walking, cycling, golf, running and swimming had a 5 percent lower risk for death, even if they didn’t meet the minimum weekly recommended minutes for exercise (150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense activity plus two sessions of resistance training). Those who met the recommendations had a 13 percent lower risk of early death.

The good thing about exercise is that it’s never too late to start. Another study found people aged 85 or older who walked at least one hour a week had a lower incidence of heart disease and a lower risk of all-cause mortality.

With all of the well-documented benefits of regular exercise, you’d think we’d all be doing it, but despite my most sincere encouragement, many of my patients found it hard to make the time or the effort. Sometimes what they needed was the right motivation. I’ll never forget a 61-year-old, mildly overweight, out-of-shape, sedentary gentleman in my practice with high blood pressure and pre-diabetes. He “just didn’t have the time” for exercise even though he was losing the stamina to keep up with his wife when walking through the mall.

Then one day at a check-up I realized that he’d lost 12 pounds, his blood pressure had dropped 10 points, and his blood sugar had normalized! When I was finished congratulating him, I asked what had happened? He told me that his first grandchild had been born, and that he realized that as the new little light of his life grew older, he was on a track NOT to be able to carry her, kick a soccer ball around or ride a bike with her.

He had started doing some light strength training each morning and walking for 30 minutes at lunch every day. He grinned from ear to ear when I showed him the positive health benefits he’d accomplished and boasted that his energy and his quality of sleep hadn’t been that good in years. He was well on the way to being the kind of grandpa he’d always dreamed he’d be.

If you’re not currently exercising or want to increase the intensity of the exercise you’re doing, be sure to talk with your doctor first. He or she can help you assess the best fitness approach for you.

As the old tennis shoe ad says, just do it. Your heart will thank you.