Regular physical activity is associated with reduced blood pressure, an increase in good cholesterol and reduction in bad cholesterol, reduced total body fat, weight loss or maintenance of ideal body weight, and improved handling of sugars in the blood. In more global terms, a number of studies have shown that higher activity and/or fitness levels are associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
How exactly does a regular, brisk walk around your neighborhood confer these wonderful outcomes? Here’s the skinny (pardon the pun). While walking, your circulatory system is busy making a complex series of adjustments so that your heart can pump additional blood to your working muscles to meet their increased metabolic demands and to make sure that all the other organ such as your kidneys and brain get their fair share of energy despite the increasing demands of your exercising muscles. The circulatory system also adjusts, to keep your body temperature normal even though you generate heat when you exercise. Blood flow to the skin increases also to facilitate body cooling.
During exercise, normal responses include an increase in your heart rate or pulse as well as an increase in your systolic blood pressure (the top number of your blood pressure measurement). How high should your heart rate climb? Assuming you are a healthy individual, an ideal aerobic exercise session should include a warm-up period for 10 minutes, an endurance phase for 30 to 45 minutes and a cool down phase for five to 10 minutes. During the endurance phase, the target heart rate should be 70 to 85 percent of your maximal heart rate. Your maximal heart rate can be estimated by subtracting your age from 220. If you are 50 years of age, your maximal heart rate is 170 and your target heart rate is 119 to 146 beats per minute. These numbers may vary with individual fitness levels. After the completion of exercise, the blood pressure and heart rate recover quickly. If you check your blood pressure at home after you have worked out, you will may find that your blood pressure is lower than it was when you started. This is normal.
Over time, with regular physical activity, the heart and circulatory system become much more efficient at getting the needed blood supply to the exercising muscles and the muscles develop more capillaries so that they become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the circulating blood. Thus, the increase in heart rate and blood pressure at a given level of exertion will be attenuated. It may even be difficult to get the heart rate up to the same levels you saw when you were just starting out and less well conditioned. How often should you participate in exercise sessions? Seven days a week if you can. And remember, regular exercise leads to the expenditure of calories. When you use more calories than you take in, weight loss is sure to follow.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that exercise has risks as well as benefits. Three of the most important predictors of risk with exercise are increasing age, the presence of heart disease, and the intensity of exercise. The risk of cardiovascular and orthopedic injuries is higher with higher intensity exercise programs. For those who are low-fit or sedentary, longer duration, lower intensity exercise is best. There are also certain exercise restrictions if you are pregnant. Before you begin a regular exercise program it is important to talk to your health care professional to identify any risk factors you might have for exercise-related problems and a fitness trainer for a safe beginning strategy. Once you get the green flag: on your mark, get set, go!
Health and happiness, Kriss
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