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Exercises to Make Your Heart Fit

Updated on March 21, 2011

How do you start to get your heart to be fitter? The principle is always to start slowly. If you have spent the last twenty or more years behind a desk, or the wheel of a car, or slumped in the armchair at home, your out-of-condition muscles will quickly complain at the change.

To start with, you don't need to jog or run, or to buy rowing machines or stationary cycles. Instead, make up your mind, in the first days, just to walk more. If you commute to work, walk to the station in the mornings and from the station at nights whenever the weather is reasonable. (Don't make up your mind to suffer in all weathers - you won't keep it up, and it may put you off the idea of walking.) If you normally take a bus or a tube train, get off a stop or two before your destination and walk the rest of the way.

Whenever you can, take the stairs, rather than the lift. Go by foot to any place within a mile of you, rather than take the car. Throw away the remote control on the television set, so that you have to get up to change the program. Do, rather than watch, things in your spare time. Go swimming, or cycling, or walking, at weekends, rather than driving or staying at home. If you do stay at home, try gardening or fix those jobs around the house. Any activity is better than none.

Above all, do enough exercise to make yourself reasonably out of breath at least twice, and preferably three or four times, a week. If you think you will enjoy running, try it, but make sure that you have the right clothing and shoes, if you intend to run on pavements. Hard surfaces and the wrong shoes can badly jar ankle, knee and hip joints.

If you find that a particular exercise bores you, try something else. You are going to spend an appreciable time exercising in the future, and you will not keep it up if you don't really like it.

Don't take it too seriously, either. There are few people worse than an exercise bore, who is constantly talking about his times or speeds. In fact, don't buy a stop watch - competition and speeds are not part of the scene. The idea is to get away from stress, not to add to it. How long you spend on the exercise is probably more important than its severity. A 4 mile (6 km) walk will get your heart as fit as if you ran the same distance in half the time.

Exercise won't kill you. As long as you are sensible about starting, you don't need to consult your doctor before starting to get fit. There are even exercise routines for patients in heart failure, and they feel much the better for them!

Choose your exercise wisely. Don't opt for explosive exercises, such as weightlifting. The action of lifting weights or straining, muscles while holding your breath is harmful, not beneficial. Doctors call this the 'Valsalva manoeuvre'. If you are not a trained weightlifter, it can cause a sudden drop in the amount of blood returning to the heart from the lower body. At best it will make you feel dizzy and faint, at worst you can quickly become unconscious. Explosive competitive sports like squash may also not be right for many people. Golf and tennis are more leisurely, and probably more acceptable.

If you are thinking of taking up a sport, then it is a good idea to have a few lessons from a professional first. It will not only give you an idea of how you will like it, but make it much easier for you to enjoy it. Few 'rabbits' survive for long in tennis or golf clubs unless they make very rapid progress in their skills.

Once you start your regular exercise, whatever it is, you are bound to have a few aches and pains as muscles are asked to do things that they have not done for years. As long as they disappear after resting, you can ignore them.

Don't overdo the exercise. If you start at a normal weight, and begin to lose a pound or two, then think again. You are either doing too much or not eating enough to replace the lost energy. It is no use replacing your heart attack risk with the problems of anorexia nervosa!

People can do too much, and become obsessed by exercise. James Fixx was probably one of these; he wrote that the best runners always look too thin. Being a beanpole has its disadvantages, and is not necessarily as good for you as being of normal weight. Of course, if you start by being overweight, losing the extra through exercise is a bonus, provided that you arrive at, and stay at, a normal weight for your height.

A point here: many people weigh themselves regularly. I don't recommend that, as it tends to focus on that one aspect, and can cause disappointment, if not despair, if the weight doesn't come off quickly. That is a mistake, because the exercise will alter your body shape, making you leaner and trimmer, without necessarily causing your weight to change much. The fat is replaced by more muscle tissue.

So instead of focusing on weight, follow your progress by looking in a long mirror. You will know from your shape and tone that you are improving, and that will boost your confidence rather than undermine it.

Daily exercise is all very well, but rest is important, too. The regular exerciser must have his rest periods, to let the muscles recover fully. So save one day a week for resting. Rest is important, too, at particular times of the day. Don't exercise until at least two hours after a main meal, or more than an hour after a small meal. Don't exercise after drinking alcohol.

If you are ill, don't try to keep up your exercise schedule, particularly if you have a virus infection such as influenza or a cold. As you begin to get better, however, start with a few easy exercises in the home - they will help your muscles to recover more quickly.

Never exercise until you are exhausted. Keep it moderate, so that you continue to enjoy it. Mixing your activities, too, will help you enjoy the new life more. Take your pick of golf, tennis, cycling, swimming, jogging, or simply walking the dog: do several of them, or even all of them, if you wish. The variety will give extra interest, and may widen horizons, too.


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