Get FITT to better fight heart disease

About half of all Americans have at least one of the key risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess weight.

You can address those risks with a heart-healthy diet and medications to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But perhaps the biggest boost you can give your heart is regular aerobic exercise.

“If you have been diagnosed with heart disease or are at high risk for the condition, then you have to work with your physician to create a plan to get up and get moving,” says Dr. Sawalla Guseh, a cardiologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Give your heart a liftRecent guidelines emphasize the importance of strength training to complement — but not substitute for — aerobic exercise. They suggest two to three days a week of strength training. You should do 10 to 15 reps for each set of exercise at 40% to 60% of your one-repetition max (the maximum amount of weight you can safely lift one time). Your routine should consist of eight to 10 different upper- and lower-body exercises. It’s best to consult a personal trainer to set up the right routine and help you choose the proper weights. Even during the pandemic, many gyms offer one-on-one personal training or Zoom sessions. You can then perform the exercises at home.

Checking the boxes

Aerobic exercise checks off multiple boxes on the heart attack and stroke prevention list. For instance, it helps burn calories and fat for weight loss. It can keep arteries from getting stiff from aging, which translates to better blood pressure readings and less stress on the heart. Aerobic exercise also keeps blood sugar levels in check and fights heart-damaging stress and inflammation.

Most people recognize that exercise is good heart medicine. Still, those with heart disease or at high risk for it may feel uneasy about putting their heart through that kind of stress.

“Some people may think that if they move too much, they’ll have a heart attack,” says Dr. Guseh. “But regular heart-pumping exercise is exactly what they should do.”

Your doctor or cardiologist can work with you to create an exercise program tailored to your specific heart health needs, fitness level, and personal interests. It often follows a simple formula called FITT: Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type.

“The approach is no different than what people need for general health and wellness,” says Dr. Guseh. Here is a look at what your program may include.

Frequency. Federal guidelines recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise over five days per week. The more you can do beyond this — like up to 300 minutes — the better.

Intensity. A moderate level of intensity is ideal. “This amount of effort makes the body and heart work enough to get the benefits of exercise, but not too much, where it places a person at risk,” says Dr. Guseh.

But what does “moderate intensity” feel like? “Intensity is highly personal,” says Dr. Guseh. “What is low intensity for one person is high for another, and vice versa, and depends a great deal on a person’s current fitness level.”

To find that sweet spot of moderate intensity when exercising, use the simple “talk test.” “If you can carry on a conversation without laboring while exercising — but you can’t sing — that’s a good measure of moderate intensity,” says Dr. Guseh.

Always remember that exercise should feel good, he adds. “Listen to your body. If you experience any discomfort, then back off, and if you feel any chest or shoulder pain, or even jaw pain, see your doctor.”

Time. It doesn’t matter how you get in at least 150 weekly minutes. “Dividing that time into 30-minute workouts most days of the week means you won’t do too much at one time,” says Dr. Guseh. “But you might prefer longer sessions, say one hour of exercise three days per week. Inevitably, how you get in that time is up to you.”

You also don’t have to do your workout all at once. “You can break up your workouts throughout the day, like some time in the morning and then again in the early evening,” says Dr. Guseh.

Also, don’t skip exercise if you can’t do your regular routine, or even if it’s less than moderate intensity. “A low-level activity for 10 minutes is always better than nothing,” he says.

If lack of motivation keeps you from putting in the required time, enlist a workout partner (while adhering to COVID physical distancing guidelines). “When you are accountable to others, you are much more likely to be more committed,” says Dr. Guseh.

Type. It’s a cliché, but the best aerobic exercise really is the one you enjoy. “If you like a particular type of activity, you are more likely to stick with it. It’s that simple,” says Dr. Guseh. “Anything that gets you winded and works up a light sweat is ideal.”

Many activities meet the definition of low-to-moderate intensity, such as racquet sports, swimming, speed walking, cycling, mid- or long-distance running, treadmill workouts, and even gardening or dancing.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 2 Thessalonians 3:3 NIV 

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. 1 Chronicles 16:11 NIV 

I love you, Lord, my strength.  The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Psalm 18:1-2 NIV 

But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble. Psalm 59:16 NIV 

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13 NIV 

Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you. Jeremiah 32:17 NIV

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. Habakkuk 3:19 NIV 

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 | NIV

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