The Hardworking Heart

In previous blogs, we’ve talked briefly about the numerous health benefits of exercise, as well as the effects exercise has on our muscles, tendons, bones, etc… However one area we haven’t touched on yet is the positive effects that regular exercise has on the heart and blood vessels.

Your heart is one of the hardest working organs in the body. Made up of 4 chambers and lined with cardiac muscle, your heart works tirelessly throughout the day to keep blood flowing to your lungs and around your body. On average, at rest, our heart pumps approximately 5 litres of blood every minute! This mean feat is accomplished by a coordinated contraction of the cardiac muscle, and a series of back-flow prevention valves to ensure things keep moving forward.

As we exercise, our body’s demand for oxygen increases, which results in both increases in heart rate and stroke volume (amount of blood ejected per beat). As well as requiring an increased effort from the heart, exercise also puts a stretch on our blood vessels – helping to keep them supple and compliant. These immediate changes are most apparent during aerobic (or cardio) exercises (e.g. walking, jogging, swimming) which all require increased amounts of oxygen to the exercising tissue.

Over time with regular bouts of exercise, the heart, being the muscle it is, adapts to the increased amount of load on the system to become more efficient. Research has shown that individuals who exercise regularly have an increase in heart size (and chamber wall thickness), improved stroke volume, and improved blood vessel size and compliance (e.g. not as stiff). All of these changes improve the performance of the heart, not only at rest (resulting in a lower resting heart rate), but also during exercise – increasing the speed at which oxygen is delivered and toxins are carried to and from the tissues. If you’d like to read into it a little more in depth, a good summary from the British Journal of Sports Medicine can be found here. So next time you’re out for a walk, cycle or swim, think of it as strength training for your heart.

Now although the research above recommends exercise 4-5x/ week, any regular bouts of aerobic exercise can help to improve your heart health and decrease your risk of several chronic health conditions (e.g. cardiovascular disease, dementia, metabolic syndrome, different cancers…). If you’re not sure where to start, come in and talk with one of our clinicians and we can get a plan in place to set you on the right track.

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