Healthy Families: Love Your Heart

During February we focus on heart health. We should focus on it all year, but this is the time we vow to lose weight, eat healthier, re-evaluate our exercise programs and do all the other things that the American Heart Association recommends.

If you are looking to re-vamp your exercise routine, improve cardiovascular fitness, and give your metabolic rate a boost, regular aerobic-type exercise is integral to your success.

Traditionally, endurance-type aerobic exercise was the favored method for increasing cardiovascular fitness. Steady state, or endurance exercise, refers to a 20 minute or longer bout of exercise, maintaining a moderate pace throughout. The moderate pace means you are working hard enough to break a sweat and raise your heart rate, but you are not so breathless that you couldn’t carry on a conversation.

The old rule of thumb was to exercise 20-30 minutes, three times per week for cardiovascular benefits and to encourage weight loss. The problem with this routine is that many people would do their 20-30 minutes and then sit and relax the rest of the day. The key is to be active and move most of the day, even after your purposeful exercise program is done.

Researchers now are recommending 300 minutes, or five hours, of moderate activity per week for optimal improvement in heart function. That would translate to 30 minutes of exercise six days a week, in addition to your regular daily activities.

If that seems like a lot of time spent at the gym, you might want to consider HIIT or high intensity interval training. HIIT is a method of aerobic exercise where bouts of high intensity work are alternated with lower intensity, or recovery phases. For example, you might sprint for 30 seconds and then walk for 30-60 seconds. You could repeat this cycle 5-10 times for an incredibly challenging workout in less than 20 minutes. In 2014, HIIT made the American College of Sports Medicine’s list of top 20 fitness trends, and is growing in popularity among all age groups.

Usually favored by 20-30 year olds, HIIT is now attracting an older set. Many researchers question the safety of HIIT for older adults and recommend checking with your physician before starting any exercise program. However, the beauty of HIIT is that intensity is a relative term. Intensity can be gauged by the number of repetitions completed, or distance travelled per minute, or rated on a scale of 1-10 where an 8-9 would indicate high intensity work. Using this method, an 8-9 would be different in terms of treadmill setting, for example, for someone highly trained vs. a beginner, but still pushes the individual to work past their comfort zone.

Like endurance exercise, HIIT has been shown to improve many facets of cardiovascular fitness such as: increasing cardiac muscle mass; increasing stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped per beat); improved and more efficient disposal of metabolic waste from, and delivery of nutrients and oxygen to, muscles and tissues; decreased blood pressure; and improved blood lipid profiles. All of these physiological improvements ultimately lead to a healthier and stronger heart, and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease in all forms.

Feeling intimidated by HIIT but want to improve your cardiovascular fitness level? Try to add HIIT in just once or twice a week. You can also focus on increasing the duration of your current workout, say from 30 to 40 minutes, or the frequency that you do it. Add another day to your routine. Just keep moving and challenging yourself and you will soon see and feel the difference a little change can make.

Carmel Rickenbach, MS, RD, LDN, is a licensed nutritionist, dietitian and wellness coach with the Kennett Area Y. For more information about healthy living programs at the YMCA of the Brandywine Valley, visit www.ymcabwv.org or any of its branches: Brandywine Y, Jennersville Y, West Chester Area Y or Oscar Lasko Youth Program Center.

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