Most studies focus on sustained aerobic exercise, but data suggests muscular strength also plays a role in reducing cardiovascular events.

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It would be remiss let February slip by without paying homage to Heart Month by acknowledging the role exercise plays in heart health.

There’s no disputing the positive effects exercise and physical activity have on cardiovascular health, with plenty of data suggesting that high levels of fitness can reduce mortality from cardiovascular events by upward of 50 per cent.

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That’s an impressive stat. But what’s more impressive is that taking up exercise after being diagnosed with heart disease can reduce the risk of a cardiac event by 70 per cent. And given that 2.6 million Canadians have one or more risk factors that increase their probability of having a heart attack or stroke, getting up and moving on a regular basis is a long-term investment in health and well-being.

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The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of exercise to enrich heart health. One hundred and fifty minutes of physical activity a week can significantly improve your risk profile. If that seems too daunting, consider boosting your daily step count. One thousand extra steps a day can reduce the risk of mortality by 23 per cent, with every 500 additional steps resulting in another drop of five to six per cent.

Most of the studies documenting the effects of exercise on the heart feature sustained aerobic exercise (walking, running, swimming, cycling), but there’s a significant amount of data suggesting that muscular strength also plays a role in reducing cardiovascular events.

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How strong do you need to be? A study of 1,104 active men noted that the more pushups they could do, the less likely they were to have a heart-related health scare. Men who performed more than 40 pushups benefited from a whopping 96-per-cent reduction in risk compared with those who could do less than 10 pushups.

There are fewer studies of heart disease in women, but the evidence that aerobic exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular events in the female population is still strong. What isn’t as obvious is whether strength training, without the addition of cardio, offers the same reduction in risk in women as it does in men.

How can you check in on your heart health? Smart watches gather information on heart rate, VO2max (aerobic capacity) and heart activity in real time. They also provide users with high and low heart rate and irregular rhythm notifications, which can provide a warning should there be a sudden change in heart activity.

Thirty-two-year-old Nathan Gossett from Ottawa bought an Apple Watch to track his workouts. An avid exerciser, he hits the gym most days of the week. But one morning, he woke up to several notifications that he experienced atrial fibrillation (a heart arrhythmia where the heart beats in a rapid, chaotic rhythm).

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“At first the doctor didn’t take me seriously,” said Gossett when he reported his watch’s notifications. “But when I was hooked up to a monitor, I was in AFib.”

The medical team shocked his heart back into a normal rhythm, and after a series of tests, it wasn’t long before the otherwise healthy Gossett was back in the gym. But now his wrist is never without his watch.

As good as smartwatches are at detecting arterial fibrillation, they can’t be counted on to warn of an impending heart attack or give you a heads up if you have heart disease. Yet they can offer unprecedented insight into heart activity. A high resting heart rate is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, lower physical fitness, higher blood pressure and body weight. Studies suggest that a resting heart rate higher than 80 beats per minute is associated with a 33-per-cent increased risk for cardiovascular death and a 45-per-cent higher risk of all-cause mortality.

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to lower resting heart rate with aerobic exercise, strength training and yoga found to decrease heart rate by anywhere from two to five beats per minute. Endurance athletes can have resting heart rates in the 40s and low 50s.  

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If you don’t have a smartwatch, there are several apps that can measure your heart rate by touching your finger to your phone’s camera. As a bonus, most apps and smart watches keep a log of your heart rate readings, which makes it easier to track any notable increases or decreases over time.

You can also measure your heart rate the old-fashioned way, by lightly pressing the pointer and middle finger to the neck (gently run your fingers down from your earlobe to rest just under the jawline) or on the inside of the opposite wrist. The best readings are done in the morning before caffeine, stress and exercise can influence heart rate. Keep a log over the course of the week and use the average count as your baseline. Over the next several weeks, change your exercise habits and see how your resting heart rate responds.

If you’re just getting off the couch, add an additional 1,000 steps to your daily routine. If you’re already exercising, try adding bouts of high-intensity exercise to your workouts. And don’t forget about consistency. It can take weeks or months before you notice a drop in your resting heart rate.

In the meantime, rest assured that your heart appreciates the extra effort.

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