How much of cardiovascular disease is because of genetics and how much is a product of lifestyle and environment? According to the World Health Organization, about 80% of cases of heart attack and stroke are related to lifestyle. This means you have some control over whether you develop a heart attack or stroke. We often think of cardiovascular disease as being a “man’s disease,’’ women, too, need to understand and control their risk factors. Women develop heart problems later in life relative to men but are more likely to die of a heart attack because diagnosis is often delayed in women.
As scientists and medical professionals point out, exercise is a lifestyle habit that lowers the risk of developing heart disease. No wonder! Regular workouts can improve some key risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Let’s look at five of the best-known risk factors and how exercise benefits each one.
Insulin resistance is where cells become less responsive to insulin. In response, the pancreas has to pump out more insulin to get glucose into cells. With insulin resistance, blood sugars rise and it exposes your body to increased oxidative stress and inflammation. As you might expect, this damages cells and even the lining of blood vessels, including the coronary arteries, the vessels that carry blood to the heart. Higher levels of insulin because of insulin resistance also affect how blood vessels function and the excess insulin contributes to plaque build-up in the coronary arteries. In addition, people with insulin resistance often have high triglycerides and low HDL-cholesterol, risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Can exercise help? Many studies show that aerobic training improves insulin sensitivity, and some find that resistance training does too. In fact, research shows that one bout of exercise boosts insulin sensitivity for up to 48 hours. If exercise leads to weight loss, it can improve insulin sensitivity longer term too. Improvements in insulin sensitivity lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Research shows high LDL-cholesterol, particularly when the LDL particles are small and dense, elevates cardiovascular risk and low HDL-cholesterol also boosts the odds of developing heart disease. Although exercise doesn’t have a big impact on LDL-cholesterol (it can reduce it by up to 10%), vigorous exercise modestly boosts HDL-cholesterol, the kind that protects against cardiovascular disease. Some studies also show that vigorous exercise can change the size of LDL particles from the more dangerous small, dense kind to larger, fluffy ones that are less likely to build up in the arteries.
You already know that obesity is a risk factor for a number of health problems and that includes cardiovascular disease. The most dangerous kind of fat from a heart health standpoint is visceral fat, deep belly fat that causes the waistline to expand. One reason visceral fat is so dangerous is that it produces inflammatory chemicals that can damage blood vessels and contribute to heart disease and heart attacks. Plus, people who are obese are more likely to have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as insulin resistance, abnormal blood lipids, and high blood pressure.
Exercise helps with weight control, and vigorous exercise helps reduce visceral fat around the midline. Plus, exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect that’s beneficial for heart health and for overall health and well-being.
High Blood Pressure
Why is high blood pressure a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke? When your blood pressure is higher than it should be, blood vessels clamp down and added pressure within blood vessels damages the delicate walls of the arteries that carry blood. Such injury increases the risk of plaque building up and a blood clot forming. Plus, your pump has to pump with more force to push blood through tight arteries. If this goes on long enough, it can lead to heart failure.
Here’s the good news! Studies show that aerobic exercise can drop systolic blood pressure by as much as 7 points. That’s comparable to some blood pressure medications! The reason exercise is so effective is that it causes blood vessels to relax so that the pressure drops. Some people with prehypertension and mild hypertension can control their blood pressure through exercise and a healthy diet.
Sitting Too Much
Sitting too long leads to tight hip flexors, neck pain, and back pain, but it also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and early mortality. Studies show that people who sit for longer than 6 hours per day are at the highest risk of cardiovascular disease. One study of 800,000 adults found that those who sat the longest had a 147% greater incidence of cardiovascular events.
On a positive note, a study found that chronic sitters who work out for an hour a day mitigate the risks of sitting too much. It’s not clear whether daily exercise undoes all the negative effects of excessive sitting, but it helps. So, be sure to get up and move around as much as possible during the day if you sit at a desk. If the threat of heart disease doesn’t bother you, this might encourage you to sit less and move around more. You burn 50 calories less per hour when you sit as opposed to standing.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why exercise is so important for lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s not a stretch to say that exercise enhances the health of every organ in the human body, but the benefits are most substantial for the heart and blood vessels. Through aerobic exercise, you can boost your aerobic capacity and stamina and with resistance exercise, you’ll build and preserve strength while reducing the age-related loss of muscle tissue. How can you not make the time to work out?
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PennMedicine.org. “Three Ways Obesity Contributes to Heart Disease”
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity201714:8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-016-0457-8.