Walking and Heart Disease

Walking can help ward off a killer: heart disease. Heart disease is the number one threat to America's health. In fact, 50% of all deaths occurring in the United States each year can be directly attributed to this killer. Scientific evidence suggests that participation in regular physical activity results in a lower risk of developing heart disease.

In addition, regular exercise helps individuals recovering from heart attacks and bypass surgery and lowers their risk of suffering a second heart attack.

Heart disease is caused by the build-up of plaque in the coronary arteries. When too much plaque accumulates, blood flow to the heart is decreased. Without enough blood supply, the heart muscle may not get enough oxygen to do its work. Chest pain caused by lack of oxygen to the heart muscle is called angina.

People who have angina sometimes use a medication known as nitroglycerin that causes the coronary arteries to dilate, thus increasing the blood flow to the heart and reducing chest pain.

When ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart) is caused by a complete blockage of an artery, part of the heart muscle can die. (Complete blockages are often the result of a blood clot that gets caught in a narrow space in an artery that already has a large build-up of plaque.) This is called a myocardial infarction, also known as a heart attack. Sometimes blockages occur in blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. An infarction in the vessels feeding the brain is called a stroke.

Reducing the risk of heart disease may be your motivation to exercise regularly, particularly if you have risk factors you cannot control. Age and family history of heart disease are both strong risk factors, neither of which are preventable. So if you have had a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, who developed heart disease before the age of sixty, you too are at increased risk. Becoming more physically active and increasing your physical fitness will improve your chances of living a longer, healthier life.

Physical Inactivity

Physical inactivity is also a risk factor for coronary heart disease. When lack of exercise is combined with overeating, excess weight and increased blood cholesterol levels can result -- and these conditions unquestionably contribute to the risk of heart disease as well.

Regular exercise has been shown to reduce your resting heart rate, thus decreasing the overall workload on the heart. Some studies show that exercise, combined with a low-fat diet and stress management, can even reduce plaques that have built up in the vessel walls.

Regular aerobic exercise plays a significant role in preventing heart and blood vessel disease. The American Heart Association recommends moderate-intensity aerobic (endurance) physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes, five days a week, to promote cardiovascular fitness. Such activities could include aerobics, jogging, running, and swimming and sports such as tennis, racquetball, and soccer.

Even modest levels of low-intensity physical activity are beneficial if done regularly and long term. Such activities include walking for pleasure, gardening, and housework. Middle-aged or older people should seek medical advice before they start to significantly increase their physical activity.

Cholesterol

Everyone needs a certain amount of cholesterol to build cell membranes and maintain health. But too much of these blood lipids -- especially the "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) variety -- can raise your risk for heart disease and stroke. Too little "good" cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL), which helps remove fats from the bloodstream, can also pose a problem.

The risk of coronary heart disease rises as blood cholesterol levels increase.

If you smoke cigarettes or have high blood pressure, your risk for heart disease increases even more. A person's cholesterol level can also be affected by age, sex, heredity, and diet.

Nearly everyone can lower their cardiovascular disease risk by eating foods low in saturated fat and adopting an overall healthier lifestyle. Based on large population studies, total blood cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter) in middle-aged adults seem to in­dicate a relatively low risk of coronary heart disease. A level of 240 mg/dl and over approximately doubles the risk. Blood cholesterol levels from 200-239 mg/dl indicate moderate and increasing risk.

High blood pressure is another risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Read the next section to learn how a regular walk can help reduce high blood pressure.

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