February is American Heart Month, and not just because of Valentine’s Day. Heart disease, which includes heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure, tops the list of killers in our nation.

Five main factors increase our risk of developing cardiovascular problems: a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and smoking. The good news is, there is one drug-free prescription that can improve four of these five danger zones: exercise.

Now, when I say exercise, I don’t mean suited-in-spandex push-until-you-puke workouts. There is a big difference between exercising to be healthy and exercising to be physically fit. The aerobics craze of the 1970s and ‘80s cursed our culture with the image of skinny bodies in leg warmers moving frenetically.

Side note: To be fair, I am a group fitness instructor. Someone once commented that I reminded her of a female Richard Simmons. Maybe it was the turquoise sweatband and red T-shirt I was wearing…

What I mean by exercise is much less glamorous (or laughable): all that is required to help decrease blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol, and shrink our waistlines is regular, moderate exercise. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd edition, published in 2020 by the United States DHHS, recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week for adults.

So the first question is, what is moderate exercise?

The basic answer is that moderate exercise is any body movement that elevates our heart rate and keeps it above its normal level. Examples of moderate exercise are taking a brisk walk and working steadily in the yard.

The second question is, how do we know our heart rate is elevated? Digital tools like fitness watches are great options, but I still use the old-fashioned talk test to measure my exertion: how many words can I say before I need to take a breath? With moderate exercise, we can still carry on a conversation, but we have to pause to let the other person talk.

The third question is, how long should we exercise? We should make sure that we elevate our heart rate for a minimum of 10 minutes each workout to gain cardiovascular health benefits. This is great news for busy people who think they do not have time to exercise. Good heart health is attainable even if we squeeze in a few short sessions during our day.

If we fall into the “sedentary lifestyle” category, the research is encouraging: the biggest health gains can be ours if we just get up and move a little each day. We can start by walking around the house for a few minutes and build on that success.

Gaining a healthier heart through exercise will do much more than add years to our lives: it will add life to our years. We will be less depressed and more energetic. We will sleep better and be able to take advantage of more opportunities. Who knows, we might even buy some sweatbands and leg warmers!

Speaking of leg warmers: if the bitter February cold is cramping our outdoor walking habit, our beautiful local fitness facilities have indoor tracks. Our YMCAs have walking passes available for purchase. Remember, your heart health is worth the investment!

By Chrissie Kaufmann, YMCA of Greater Michiana
Tuesday, February 9, 2021 - 9:24am