Priming Your Pump

Making your heart work harder now can pay dividends later.

By Lauren Tepper

February 2007

Many Americans are still alarmingly sedentary, despite exercise’s well-known benefits. This refusal to move can be deadly: The American Heart Association attributes 250,000 deaths each year to a lack of steady exercise.

While any activity is better than none, cardiovascular exercise (also called cardio or aerobic exercise) is the best thing for your heart. Cardio is any repetitive movement of the large muscles that increases the work of the heart and lungs; you breathe more quickly, and your heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature all increase. If your major physical activity each day is pulling the La-Z-Boy in and out of recline position, the extra effort of cardio may feel overwhelming at first. But the results are too good to pass up.

Done regularly, aerobic exercise enables the heart to pump more blood with less effort, in addition to lowering harmful types of cholesterol while building up the good kinds. In fact, people who do aerobic exercise regularly after a heart attack live longer than those who do not. Intense exercise boosts your metabolism for the rest of the day—so you’re more likely to shed any extra pounds—and releases endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers), which gives you a “runner’s high” feeling. “People have a better sense of well-being when they exercise,” says Dr. Andrew Costin, cardiologist with the Princeton Medical Group in Princeton, New Jersey. “They’re not as anxious and they decrease their risk of depression.”

No Pain, No Gain? No Way!

The cardio key is to pace yourself: You should feel invigorated after your workout, not like you were run over by a Mack truck. Go for a physical first if you have been relatively inactive for a long period of time. And keep in mind that “some people can’t raise their heart rate due to medications,” according to Dr. Costin; check with your practitioner.

If you haven’t broken out the gym shorts since sixth grade track-and-field day, brisk walking is a great way to get started. Start walking on relatively flat terrain for 10 to 15 minutes, ideally five times per week. Each week, increase the duration by five minutes until you reach 30 to 50 minutes, and incorporate hillier terrain as you feel ready.

Swimming laps at a local pool is one of the best cardio workouts, especially for those who want to avoid joint impact. Outdoor enthusiasts can jog, Rollerblade, cycle or cross-country ski (with a backup plan for bad weather). In addition to conventional cardio machines, many gyms offer a creative assortment of aerobic classes like cardio kickboxing, cardio dance and even “cardio striptease,” a clothed version of sinuous moves you can use to get your partner’s heart pumping at home, too.

If competition drives you, join (or start) a sports group. Basketball, soccer and ultimate Frisbee will keep your heart rate up—and you’ll have so much fun you’ll forget you’re working out. Exercising with buddies can relieve the monotony of repetitive movement and help you stay motivated and consistent.

In the Cardio Zone

To get the most out of cardio, engage in a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week; to improve your endurance, shoot for 30 to 60 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity exercise four to five times a week. The “talk test” is a simple way to measure exertion. If you can speak easily with no shortness of breath, step things up a notch; if you are so out of breath that talking is difficult, take it down a bit. For a more scientific approach, subtract your age from 220 to estimate your maximum heart rate. The target heart rate for cardio improvement is around 70% of this maximum. For example, if you are 40 years old, your maximum heart rate is approximately 180 (220-40), so your target heart rate for exercise is around 126 beats per minute. You can check your heart rate while you exercise by counting your pulse for six seconds and adding a zero. If this sounds like too much work, purchase a heart rate monitor.

Always include a warm-up and cool-down period for a few minutes at each end of your workout. Starting gradually lubricates joints, prevents injuries and prepares the body for more vigorous movement. Cooling down with some stretches or walking allows the heart rate to drop gradually, prevents lightheadedness or muscle cramping and lengthens the muscles while they are still warm and pliable.

If you get bored on the treadmill, add variety to your routine with interval or cross-training programs. Interval training involves alternating between high-intensity activity and more moderate exercise, such as sprinting for one or two minutes then jogging at a slower pace for three to five minutes. Combine two different types of exercise, like skipping rope and cycling, for a challenging cross-training workout. Add strength training, such as pushups or free-weight exercises, into rest periods to incorporate sculpting and toning into your cardio program. Get into a meditative zone by focusing on your breath, opening your senses to your environment, and becoming keenly aware of your physical experience.

Your heart has been powering your life since before you were born, beating an average 2.5 billion times in a lifetime of 70 years. Isn’t it a good idea to invest a few hours a week in basic cardiac maintenance?

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