If exercise seems as appealing as filing taxes or cleaning the gutters, it’s tempting to put it off — but you’ll do so at the expense of your health.
Over time, skipping the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week increases the risks of weight gain, lowers metabolism, impairs immune function, causes hormonal imbalances and increases inflammation. A sedentary lifestyle also impacts your heart health.
“Exercise lowers your blood pressure, improves your HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, lowers your LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and reduces stress, which all decrease your risk of heart disease,” explains Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association spokeswoman. “It’s an important foundation for good heart health.”
A 2018 study published in the journal Circulation shows it’s never too late to get started.
Researchers followed 61 middle-aged sedentary participants for two years and found those who started exercise programs had an 18% improvement in maximum oxygen intake during exercise and more than 25% increase in the elasticity of the left ventricle, the chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood back into the body and can stiffen with age.
Erin Howden, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and one of the study’s authors notes, “Sedentary behavior such as sitting or reclining for extended periods increases the risk of heart disease [and] we found that intervening with the right dose of exercise was effective in reversing the effects of sedentary aging on the heart.”
HOW MUCH DO YOU HAVE TO MOVE?
The “right dose” of exercise is key, according to Howden.
Participants needed to exercise at least four times per week to overcome the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle; fewer sessions were not adequate for improving heart health, the research showed.
In the study, participants exercised for 30 minutes (plus warm-up and cool-down sessions) 4–5 times per week. At least one of those weekly sessions included a high-intensity workout with heart rates hitting 95% of peak; one session per week emphasized moderate-intensity activities and lasted an hour. The program also included two weekly sessions of strength training.
If going from couch potato to exercising four (or more) days per week feels daunting, take heed: Participants in the study started off with fewer sessions of moderate-intensity exercise to build up their fitness levels.
“You’re not going to be an Olympic athlete when you start and that’s OK,” Goldberg says. “Take small steps and remember that any amount of exercise is better than none at all.”
HOW HARD DO YOU HAVE TO WORK?
Aim for a moderate pace.
Research published in the European Heart Journal found walking speed was linked with heart health. In particular, middle-aged adults who walked at a slow pace were twice as likely to die from heart disease during the study compared with their fast-walking peers.
The research is clear, according to Howden: Exercise can improve your heart health, even if you haven’t laced up your sneakers in years.
“If you have been thinking about starting an exercise program,” she says. “There is no better time to begin than today.”