Heart Health

Take control this year with shorter bursts of high-intensity exercise and other critical lifestyle changes

While heart disease remains the No. 1 killer for Americans, the medical community’s approach to cardiovascular health continues to evolve. New guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology for cholesterol medications help identify four types of patients who need moderate to high-intensity regimens of cholesterol medication, while lifestyle changes are increasingly touted as just as crucial in the battle for healthy hearts.

“I think the place to start as a patient is to know what your risk factors are,” says Dr. Melissa Grimm of Meriter Medical Group, noting that women have additional risk factors including complications during pregnancy, use of hormone therapy and increased prevalence of high blood pressure as they age.

“We’re putting more and more emphasis on what we as individuals can do as part of our daily lifestyle habits to control our own health,” adds Dr. Gretchen Diem of Meriter Medical Group. “And I think that’s the exciting part, because there really is a lot that we can do to ward off heart disease.”

Lifestyle factors play an invaluable role in heart health, particularly lifestyle factors such as smoking and exercise. Quitting smoking, alone, reduces heart attack risks by fifty percent within one year. Losing just ten percent of your body weight lowers blood pressure, reduces LDL “bad” cholesterol, improves glucose tolerance, and significantly lowers the risk for cardiovascular disease. And while thirty minutes of exercise most days per week reduces the risk of heart attack by seventy percent, even just a ten-minute daily walk still results in a fifty percent risk reduction.

“I think the problem is that most of us just discount or overlook the small stuff because we don’t believe it can make a difference in our health,” says Diem. “And yet really it can.”

“The key is to start where you are at,” says Grimm. “If you start slow, with realistic short-term goals, this can be motivating to gradually build on enjoyable physical activity that can be maintained over the long term.”

Work your heart smarter

The general rule once was the longer you elevated your heart rate, the greater the cardiovascular benefit. But new research suggests short bursts of high-intensity training are more effective and yield more sustainable results.

“High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, is designed to be a shorter, quicker and more intense workout,” says Kraig Kuchenbecker, personal training manager at Prairie Athletic Club. “Instead of hopping on the treadmill or bike for thirty minutes at the same intensity, I prefer to have my clients utilize HIIT training with compound exercises to produce a metabolic effect.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive to old-school exercisers, our bodies quickly adapt to long periods of endurance activities such as distance running or an hour on the elliptical machine lost in a magazine; they don’t work as hard and they recover too quickly. HIIT challenges a healthy heart with short bursts of higher intensity, increasing cardiovascular capacity so our bodies utilize oxygen intake more efficiently. What’s more, it takes longer to recover; you’ll continue to burn calories long after the workout ends.

“In your typical jog you’re only using your leg muscles to get your heart rate and lungs up,” says Kuchenbecker. “With metabolic or HIIT training, you’re using all your muscle groups, with little to no rest, to elevate your heart, plus you’re incorporating resistance training with it so you’re getting more burn for your buck.”

Kuchenbecker says one of the greatest benefits is plateau avoidance or the elimination of the “not enough time” excuse.

“It’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more effective, and it’s never boring,” says Kuchenbecker. “At Prairie Athletic our CrossFit and Bootcamp classes are now geared around HIIT, with the communal group environment aiding in the fun. It’s constantly varied, there’s a camaraderie aspect, and it’s fun because you don’t have to think about it. It’s exciting, it’s different and it works.”

Functional Fitness for Real Life

At YMCA of Dane County, Inc., HIIT is also an increasingly popular core component of cardiovascular programming.

“The latest research suggests that performing high-intensity intervals can be five to six times as effective as regular steady-state exercise,” says Sharon Baldwin, senior director of healthy living. “Therefore it’s not necessary to include the long cardio sessions in your workouts. You can replace them with effective short bursts of cardio leading to breathlessness.”

Baldwin says it should take your body at least thirty seconds for you to gain back your breath, if you’re doing the exercises correctly. An easy way to check if you’ve hit your target heart rate is to perform a talk test; you should not be able to speak more than three words consecutively without stopping to catch a breath. If you’re unsure about where to start, join a class. TABATA BOOTCAMP, INSANITY and R.I.P.P.E.D. all utilize HIIT principles.

Functional fitness exercises are designed to train and develop your muscles to make it easier and safer to perform everyday activities, such as carrying groceries or playing a game of basketball with your kids. Functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work or in sports. While using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time, functional fitness exercises also emphasize core stability. They also increase heart rate far quicker. For instance, try this quick experiment: first do a regular squat, then do that squat with your arms held above your head.

“Cardiovascular exercise involves movement that gets your heart rate up to improve oxygen consumption by the body,” says Baldwin. “An essential part of every exercise program, cardio not only helps you lose or maintain weight, it helps you build endurance so you can remain active for a longer period of time.”

These types of workouts will help you reach your fitness goals and improve cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility and balance.

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