By Peter G. Roy, DC, CFT
Everyone knows that exercise is good for your heart. But is the workout you are doing enough?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States each year and is responsible for almost 1 in 4 deaths of African Americans. It is one of the primary reasons we make that annual visit to the family doctor. When physicians detect a cardiac risk they generally recommend lifestyle adjustments, such as eliminating smoking and high-fat foods, and getting more exercise. But when it comes to exercise, the doctor commonly has little to offer in the way of guidance beyond a suggestion to walk more each day. Patients are then released to find their own way. Since most people are not informed of the most effective ways to exercise, they generally try for awhile, then give up or ignore the advice altogether. Those that do commit to exercising usually end up in fitness programs that focus only on cardiovascular conditioning.
While any exercise will have a beneficial effect on health in general, all programs are not created equal. In fact, most serve only one aspect of health – physical fitness. In actuality there is more to practicing a fitness lifestyle than just getting a regular workout at the gym or running 40 miles a week. Achieving and maintaining a truly balanced, integrated human organism requires physical exercise, neurological conditioning and streamlining the mind-body connection. This is especially important when designing a program for cardiac health. Build a health program using the following three exercise methods and, combined with a healthy eating plan and you will see the following results:
• Reduced blood pressure
• Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol
• Higher HDL (good) cholesterol
• Reduced insulin resistance
• Lower blood sugar
• Reduced body fat
• Improved hormonal balance
• Increased energy and vitality
• Improved mood
Less Is More Fitness Training
The days of spending an hour on the treadmill or two hours in the gym are over. Advances in fitness training have reduced the amount of time necessary to get the exercise effect by increasing the intensity levels of the workout. In addition, exercise routines that incorporate compound, whole-body movements allow you to work multiple areas and muscles at once. Lastly, by adding weighted resistance to the movements you increase the load on both your muscles and cardiovascular system. In so doing, you will get cardiovascular conditioning as you build muscle strength. You can get it all done in 20 to 40 minutes per session, 3 sessions per week. This approach to exercise is called High Intensity Interval Resistance Training. You can do it using body-weight, dumbbells, exercise bands, kettlebells, medicine balls or just about any type of apparatus that will add to the load of the exercise. HIIRT training requires maximal effort during the exercise portion and very specific intervals of rest that keep your heart rate at an elevated level for the duration of the workout. If there is any drawback to this type of training is it that you probably don’t know enough to start a program on your own. Your best bet is to find a reputable boot camp style program run by a certified fitness professional. The group dynamic adds to the fun and intensity of the workout and it is much less expensive than one-on-one personal training.
Many people think of exercise as an activity in which the body is moving. Meditation is a form of movement that requires stillness. By sitting still, closing your eyes and allowing your mind to settle inward, your entire system will experience the immediate benefits of stress reduction, including lower blood pressure and reduced stress hormone levels. The long-term effects of a regular meditation program include a healthier heart. Studies have shown that meditation can drastically reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in people already diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. Just a few minutes of sitting quietly once or twice a day will help. More formal practices such as Transcendental Meditation may reap even greater benefits.
Make The Connection
Hatha yoga is the perfect exercise for rest days between those HIIRT workouts. It restores and enhances flexibility, overall muscular tone, vascular circulation and lymphatic flow. Through the “asanas” (physical postures), controlled breathing and calming the mind, yoga helps to balance and strengthen the mind-body connection. Emerging research indicates a correlation between yoga and lower cardiovascular risk.
Just Do It
Making lifestyle changes can be difficult, especially when it comes to exercise. The most common reason for not doing so is time. No fancy advice here – FIND THE TIME. You won’t regret it. Do it for a month and see how great you feel. Stick it out for 3 months and your cardiologist will be asking you for advice. Here’s a sample workout for beginners if no group fitness program is available in your area:
Each exercise should be performed at maximum intensity for 20 seconds then rest for 10 seconds and move to the next exercise. 10 seconds rest between each 20 second exercise. After all exercise have been performed rest 30 seconds then repeat the entire round at least 3 times and as many as 5. Be sure to warm up a few minutes before beginning.
Arm Circles: Stand with the arms extended out to the side perpendicular to the torso. Make backwards circles (about 12 inches wide) keeping the arms straight at the elbow.
Mountain Climbers: Start in the push-up position. Bring one foot forward under the chest and touch the toe to the floor beneath the chest. Make a little jump to lift both feet off of the ground and switch the position of the feet. Stay in the push up position throughout. Continue for the entire 20 seconds.
Squats: Stand with feet parallel and shoulder width apart. Slowly crouch down as if sitting in a chair until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as low as you can go) as you simultaneously raise your arms straight out in front of your body. Keep your shoulders back and your head up at all times. Press through your heels to return to a standing position. If you are concerned about balance or falling, perform with a wall or chair behind you for safety.
Push Ups: With hands shoulder-width apart and feet hip-width apart, hold your body rigid like a board above the floor. Keeping the tummy tight and flat, slowly lower the chest to the floor then push back up.
Reverse Lunges: Stand with hands on hips and feet hip-width apart. Step the right leg backward and slowly lower your right knee until it almost touches the floor. Return to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.
Calf-Raises: Stand with feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed out about 20 degrees. Raise your heels up and place your weight onto the balls of your feet. Hold for one beat then lower your weight back down to your heels.
Stair/Bench Dips: Sit on the floor with knees slightly bent, and place the palm of your hand on the edge of the bench or stair with your fingers hanging over the edge. Lift your weight up by straightening the arms at the elbow then lower your body back down but do not let it rest on the floor. Repeat.
Frog Jumps: Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Squat down as low as you can go until your fingertips can touch the floor (or as close as you can get them). Be sure to squat. Don’t bend at the waist. Keeping your arms low in front of you, jump as high as you can before landing and sinking back down to the squatting position. Repeat.
*A form of HIIT exercise invented by Izumi Tabata, Ph. D.