Exercise, Stress, and Heart Disease

Continuing my current theme of caring for your heart, today's discussion centers around exercise. Everyone knows that exercise is good for your heart, right? But is this true across the board? What kinds of exercise are best for the heart? And how much exercise is the right amount?

These are all good questions. But the answers are complex.

First, let me credit Dr. Claudia Welch, author of Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life with the inspiration for this post, as well as most of the factual information I'll share with you today. This book combines up-to-date studies from around the world with scientific knowledge and ancient wisdom.

As far as the very best exercise for your heart, it is simple: walking. Yup. Not jogging or running. Just plain old walking. This is very good news for most of us. Our hearts (and the rest of our bodies) were designed for many, many hours per day of low-intensity movement. Things like walking, gardening, cleaning the house, leisurely swimming or biking are all perfect. Long distance running looks to be much more taxing to the heart, as well as other body parts. A high intensity sprint once or twice per week might be fine, but mile after mile of pounding the pavement is not recommended.

In addition to walking, stretching appears to be an important component of heart health. Studies in the US and Japan have found a clear correlation in those over 40 years old between overall flexibility and heart health, specifically the flexibility of the arteries surrounding the heart. There is a quick test you can do right now to determine your own general level of flexibility: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Reach forward and see if you can touch your toes. Is it easy? If so, you are quite flexible, especially in your low back and hamstrings. And if you are over 40, the likelihood is good that your arteries are also flexible. This is great news for your heart, which has to work harder to pump blood through stiff arteries. But what if you are tight in your muscles? A small 2008 study in Texas determined that participants who increased their flexibility by stretching daily also increased the flexibility of their arteries by 20% in just 13 weeks! More good news!

And if that is not quite enough good news for you, I have one more piece of information which totally made my day when I learned it: napping is good for your heart! (Insert happy dance here.) I don't know about you, but I am a major proponent of naps. A 2006 study of healthy individuals showed that occasional nappers had a 12% less risk of developing heart disease than non-nappers. But regular nappers had a 37% reduction. Dr. Welch points out that napping may not do wonders for heavy, sedentary types, but for thin, driven (type-A) people, naps might be a saving grace.

Take-away message for today: Walk more but run less. Don't wear your body and your heart out with endless moderate exercise. Remember to stretch your muscles every day. And then take a nap. What could be better?