Healthier Heart Challenge: Get Your Engines Running

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

Targeting weight is an important aspect of heart health. For most of us, excess weight is usually due to eating too much (often the wrong foods) and not exercising enough. That’s why the first assignment, after getting a health screening, was to get moving by starting to walk daily. The recommendation was to walk ten to fifteen minutes daily. We suggested that you put this commitment into your daily planner so you “see it and do it.” Heart health requires daily physical movement – so your heart muscle remains strong and to control weight. Aerobic exercise is important to heart health.

What is aerobic exercise?

Also called cardiovascular or cardio exercise, this type of exercise requires the heart to pump blood at a faster rate, in order to send the oxygenated blood to working muscles. You are typically able to sustain this type of exercise for long periods of time because of the delivery of oxygen. During anaerobic exercise, your body is working very hard to sustain the exercise, so you run out of breath somewhat quickly and cannot sustain the activity for too long (think sprinting and very heavy weight lifting). Examples of aerobic exercise include: walking, jogging, running, hiking, swimming, spinning, dancing, cross country skiing, kickboxing, aerobics classes and using cardio machines like a treadmill, elliptical, Stairmaster, Stepmill, and stationary bike. Any of these can become anaerobic if you take the intensity to a super high level.

How does aerobic exercise improve heart health?

Your heart normally beats at a rate of 60 – 80 times per minute. When you perform aerobic activity on a daily basis, you will begin to strengthen your heart muscle and it will likely be able to beat at a lower rate per minute, and push more blood through your body with each beat. That’s because each “push” will be more effective. The net effect of a successful aerobic program is a lower heart rate. You will also become more “oxygen efficient’ which means your body (muscles in particular) will adapt and become more efficient at extracting and utilizing oxygen. Ultimately, your body will get used to a certain level of aerobic exercise, so you will need to increase intensity or duration of exercise, or both, in order to keep nudging weight loss
(calories being burned). Aerobic exercise can help to reduce blood pressure. Burning more calories will also help you to shed excess weight and combat obesity. Even if you have serious heart disease, an exercise program can usually improve heart health and function.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an initial goal of 150 minutes of “moderate” aerobic activity weekly. If losing weight and maintaining weight loss is a serious part of your heart health goal, then you should progress over time to 200- 300 minutes of aerobic activity weekly. This table can help you to assess just how many calories you are burning when you do a particular exercise for a particular duration of time with mild, moderate or intense effort.

What’s nice about a walking program is that it simply requires your body – no other exercise equipment - which makes it affordable and accessible. Do invest in a good pair of tennis shoes and plan to replace them every six months. Hydrate before and after your exercise effort. Just remember that your body will become accustomed to exercise quickly, so keep increasing your effort. Also understand that the exercise payoff has more of a health rather than a weight-reducing impact.

What does a beginning walking program look like?

The goal for the next three weeks is to work up to a 20 minute daily walk at a brisk pace. Brisk walking means that you can still talk, but feel a bit of difficulty when talking in full sentences. Learn to take your pulse and take note of the rate to determine a moderate place. Guidelines suggest that moderate exercise is an effort that is about 70 percent of maximal heart rate. You will need to figure out your “maximal heart rate” and then target a sustained pulse that is 70 percent of that number.

Motivate yourself by keeping track of your daily progress and include the duration of the walk, and your heart rate average (take every five minutes while walking). If you feel inspired, begin weight-training as a next goal. Lifting weights can help you to build muscle mass, and that will increase your metabolic calorie-burning efforts. Remember that a tracking device like a Fitbit or using an app can also help you to track progress and inspire you to stick with your fitness goals.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”