In our image-conscious, social media-saturated society, it is easy to forget there are benefits to exercise beyond just looking good. Like the way exercise can affect your heart health.
“One in two men and one in three women [in Australia] will die from cardiovascular disease,” says Adelaide cardiologist Professor Stephen Worthley.
Can too much exercise put strain on the heart?Credit:Stocksy
An umbrella term for “anything that affects the arteries and blood vessels in any organ in [the] body”, cardiovascular – or heart – disease can manifest as a heart attack, stroke or peripheral vascular disease (which affects blood circulation).
“In people without heart disease, there is a large body of evidence that regular exercise decreases blood pressure and [type 2] diabetes risk, improves cholesterol, and assists with weight maintenance – all risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” Professor Worthley explains.
There is also significant evidence that exercise is beneficial for individuals already with heart disease: people with weakening of the heart muscle [have better outcomes] with regular exercise than if they are inactive.
"That’s in terms of quality of life, less breathlessness, and even [improved] heart function.”
What’s the best type of exercise for heart health?
If HIIT workouts or a CrossFit membership are your worst nightmare, don't despair: you don’t have to do intense interval training to up your cardiovascular fitness.
There are lots of different forms of exercise that can benefit heart health, from aerobic exercise where the body relies on its oxygen intake (such as sprinting), to slower-paced anaerobic exercise where stored energy in the muscles is utilised.
“Whatever exercise you enjoy – that is sustainable, that you keep doing – is the best one," Professor Worthley says.
"But you need to get your heart rate up, so if it’s walking it has to be brisk walking.”
Jogging, swimming, bike riding, lifting light weights, and pilates have all been shown to be beneficial, Worthley says.
And how much?
For normal, everyday people and people with pre-existing heart disease "regular exercise of moderate intensity” is Worthley’s recommendation.
“That’s at least three times a week for at least 20 to 30 minutes at a time, and ideally more is better.”
Speak to your doctor if you have concerns, and “if you have heart disease, exercise should be done in conjunction with advice from your doctor”.
Can too much exercise put strain on the heart?
In 2017, concerns were expressed by Italian researchers about the link between high intensity exercise and incidence of cardiomyopathy – weakening of the heart muscle – in elite athletes.
This research followed the International Olympic Committee's establishment of a panel of experts to discuss the cardiovascular health of elite athletes in 2009. The panel advised that national committees should implement a cardiac assessment as part of routine medical evaluations of those competing in sport at high levels.
While Professor Worthley believes “more research is needed” he says the observed incidence of cardiomyopathy is likely the result of “sustained year-in, year-out exercise".
Heart health has presented problems for some Australian former athletes. Former Olympic swimmer Lisa Curry has an implanted cardioverter-defibrillator for myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), and triathlete Greg Welch underwent nine open-heart surgeries between 2001 and 2003.
However, Professor Worthley says the "vast majority" of athletes enjoy great health free from heart disease.
“For 99.9 per cent of the population, the evidence in people that don’t have heart disease [shows that exercise] is only beneficial, and invariably the risk is not that they’ll do too much exercise, but not enough.”
For more information visit HealthShare, a joint venture with The Herald and The Age to improve the health of regional Australians.
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