Prevent A Heart Attack With Exercise

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Aside from giving you a better sense of well-being, regular exercise may give your heart the chance to prevent a heart attack in the future through a process called neovascularization.

The intelligent heart

The heart automatically regulates how much blood it requires to be able to function effectively as a pump. During times of exercise (like climbing stairs or brisk walking), the heart needs to pump more blood to power the leg muscles. The increased pumping of the heart also increases its own need for blood in order to power the heart muscles.

The higher demand for blood by the heart is met by the dilation of the coronary arteries (the arteries that supply blood to the heart). What happens is this: The arteries that supply blood to the heart increases in diameter. The effect is that more blood can flow through the coronary arteries to supply the heart.

The dilation of the coronary arteries happens without problems in young adults. For the elderly, it doesn't go as smoothly.

The elderly artery

The arteries of the elderly are not as elastic as the arteries of the young. Because of this, the arteries of the elderly cannot easily increase their diameter. Moreover, the arteries of the elderly may get clogged by cholesterol deposits. These deposits impair the flow of blood through the artery. The two factors -- lack of elasticity and cholesterol deposits -- impair blood flow to the heart during times of physical activity. The effect is felt by the person as shortness of breath or chest pain during periods of physical activity.

How exercise helps

The loss of elasticity and clogging of arteries occur gradually over the years. Without regular physical activity that increases the demand from the heart, there is no way for the heart to sense that the coronary arteries are slowly decreasing their capacity to provide extra blood in times of need. The result is that the heart belatedly realizes there is a problem only when the artery is completely obstructed and a part of the heart no longer has any blood supply. When this critical scenario is reached, a heart attack will occur.

With regular exercise that increases the demand from the heart, this organ senses the insufficient blood flow through the partially hardened and clogged arteries. The heart then initiates a process called neovascularization, that is, the heart begins to make new arteries that will provide the additional blood flow that cannot be provided by the clogged and hardened arteries. The result is that the heart is assured that any amount of blood it needs will be adequately provided.

What kind of exercise

The simplest form of exercise that will provide benefits for the heart is brisk walking. Other exercises that give the heart a workout include jogging, running, swimming, cycling and skipping rope. All these exercises increase the heart rate for an extended period of time. Brisk walking, swimming and cycling offer the advantage of not producing undue stress on the knees. Brisk walking is simply walking at a fast and sustained rate. You may be surprised how challenging this is.

The strategy

The target is to be able to sustain a brisk walk of 30 minutes three times each week. You may start with a two and a half minute walk and add two and a half minutes after two weeks, that is, walk briskly for two and a half minutes for weeks 1-2, five minutes for weeks 3-4, and so on until you can do 30 minutes.

Before you start

If you have been without any significant physical activity for some time, it is best to consult your doctor first. You may have subtle symptoms of a beginning heart problem which may worsen with exercise. A simple visit to your doctor may prevent a major injury.

More resources

Visit the Mayo Clinic website for further information about aerobic exercises, weight training, stretching, and core exercises.

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