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Benefits of Exercise to the Heart

Updated on March 25, 2011

Regular exercise reduces the risk of, or postpones the onset of, a whole series of diseases, including arthritis, rheumatism, disc trouble, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary disease, stroke and even depression and anxiety. If you are overweight it is the best way, eventually, to lose the flab.

People who exercise regularly are less likely to smoke and overeat, tend not to have high blood pressure, and have lower blood cholesterol levels. Their risk of a heart attack is much less than among those who take little exercise.

Exercising regularly also postpones the onset of old age, although it won't necessarily help you to live longer once you are old. It helps to 'compress' the final period of old age before death. You can, tell an older person who has exercised throughout life by his or her straighter back, better neck movements, more mobile joints and more bulky musculature. Older people who are fitter feel less depressed and isolated from others.

This is particularly important for women. After the menopause, women's bones are particularly susceptible to osteoporosis, in which calcium, the mineral that provides strength to the bone structure, is , lost gradually over the years; 12,000 women suffer broken hips every year in Britain alone because of their osteoporosis. Many of these fractures could have been avoided if only the women had taken regular exercise in the years leading up to the menopause.

Exercise strengthens bone by shunting calcium into it. Physically active women start their post-menopausal years with a much bigger 'bank' of calcium in their thigh and hip bones, so that any later loss of calcium will never be enough to cause the bones to weaken significantly.

It is never too late to start. From the early 1970s onwards, heart attack survivors have been encouraged to exercise as soon as they have recovered from the acute period. This has led to some astonishing success. One of the earliest proponents of exercise after heart attack was Dr. Terence Kavanagh, who ran a Cardiac Rehabilitation Centre in Toronto.

He had encouraged his patients to start carefully, with a short walk, building slowly up to a slow jog for up to an hour at a time. Some of his patients suggested to him that they try a marathon. He was doubtful at first, but decided to encourage them. After careful training, all seven of his first group of patients finished the marathon without any ill-effects. According to James Fixx, they presented the good doctor with a trophy entitled 'Supercoach, the World's Sickest Track Club'!

No one suggests, of course, that every heart patient should be able to manage a marathon. In fact, the enthusiasm for marathons has died away since the early 1980s, rightly so, as it put too many untrained amateur would-be athletes at risk. Dr Kavanagh's club, however, shows that if people who have had heart attacks can do so well, exercise can offer so much more for all of us.

Once you start your new life of physical activity, how will you know if you are getting fitter? First, you will feel much fitter within yourself, physically, and you will be much more alert and happier, mentally. If you want to prove the benefit beyond doubt, however, try that Harvard Step Test again after one week of the new you! You will find your score going up dramatically: it will be easier to continue for the full four minutes, and your pulse rates will be much slower. Aim, eventually, for the mid-70 region, and keep yourself around there. You don't have to be an Olympic athlete to be fit and feel well.

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