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Does exercise improve cardiovascular function?

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Exercise and mental health are important factors of your overall health. Regular exercise training and regular physical activity are some of the pillars of good health, associated with numerous benefits ranging from reduced risk of disease to maintenance of strength to increased mobility. Some of these benefits of aerobic exercise are easy to see and feel, like muscle tone in your biceps or abs after a weight-training session or joint flexibility after a yoga class. 

But what about exercise training benefits to that all-too-important muscle—your heart? 

If you’ve ever wondered what happens to your heart during and after a vigorous walk or a hard ride on your bike, and whether your sweaty workout is really worthwhile in the long-run, read on for an in-depth look at the cardiovascular benefits of incorporating regular exercise into your weight-loss program.

What is cardiovascular function?

Let’s start at the beginning—what exactly is the cardiovascular system? 

The word cardiovascular is formed from two components:

  • Cardio – From the Greek kardía, meaning “heart”

  • Vascular – From the Latin vascularis, meaning “of or pertaining to vessels or tubes”

The cardiovascular system’s primary function is to transport oxygenated blood volume from the lungs to fuel the body, and then to return deoxygenated blood volume and waste products to the lungs. And the heart muscle? Well, it’s the heart of this whole system. It’s the pump powering all the movement of blood around the body. 

So cardiovascular function refers to the efficacy of the heart, and its associated system of veins, arteries, and capillaries carrying blood throughout the body. 

Ideal cardiovascular function

Ideal cardiovascular function occurs when the heart and vascular system are able to meet the metabolic needs of the body in any situation, meaning they are able to deliver oxygenated blood and remove waste from the blood in perfect balance and with minimal effort. 

Imagine taking a walk on a flat city sidewalk. You’re barely aware of your heartbeat and your breathing as you stroll along. Your cardiovascular system is doing its job, working ideally.

But when the body is stressed, either by disease or physical exertion, its metabolic need increases, and this, in turn, puts pressure on the cardiovascular system. 

Imagine hiking up a mountain trail that gets steeper and steeper. With each step, you breathe faster, and your muscles begin to ache. You can feel your heart pounding. This is your cardiovascular system kicking into high gear to keep up with your increased oxygen needs and metabolism. This, too, is ideal—a system in perfect balance even under stress.

How does regular exercise affect cardiovascular function?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of regular aerobic exercise weekly. They cite the following benefits:

  • Feeling better

  • Reduce feelings of anxiety and depression

  • Improve sleep and quality of life

  • Improve cognitive function

  • Less likely to develop chronic disease

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Cancer

All of that makes regular aerobic exercise sound pretty powerful. But why? Why is regular cardio exercise so vital to health and well-being?

It all comes down to the heart. 

When the heart is regularly exercised, it stays healthy and the inter-related systems of the body function in harmony. Pretty much every system in the body requires blood and oxygen to be provided by the cardiovascular system. From the endocrine system to the lymphatic system to the reproductive system, blood pumped by the heart is a critical component. The heart also brings oxygen and nutrients to all the parts of the body so they can keep working. Blood carries carbon dioxide and other waste materials to the lungs, kidneys, and digestive system to be removed from the body. Blood also fights infections and carries hormones around the body.

However, when the heart is weakened, struggling, or operating at a sub-optimal level, it can become stiff or fail to fill as it once did. In turn, blood cannot be pumped efficiently enough to power the body’s cells. This leads to a variety of ill-effects within the body, such as:

  • Blood vessel disease

  • Irregular heart rhythm, known as arrhythmias

  • Heart valve disease

  • Chest pain, tightness, and discomfort

  • Shortness of breath

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness or fainting

  • Swelling of the extremities

  • Exhaustion

The heart engine

The human heart is composed of a specific type of muscle, called cardiac muscle, but like any other type of muscle, cardiac muscle needs regular exercise to keep it strong, flexible, and adaptable. As with skeletal muscles like the hamstrings, triceps, or glutes, routinely challenging the cardiac muscle keeps it strong, supple, and working at peak ability.

Since you can’t ask cardiac muscle to perform a squat or a bench-press, the heart has to be worked out via aerobic (meaning “with air”) activity such as:

  • Walking

  • Running

  • Swimming 

  • Biking

  • Jumping rope

  • Rock climbing

  • Rowing

  • Kickboxing

  • Taking a group fitness class, such as cycle, zumba, hot yoga, water aerobics, or dance

  • And pretty much anything else that gets you breathing hard!

Anaerobic (meaning “without air”) exercise is equally important for keeping cardiac muscle healthy. Also known as resistance training, anaerobic exercise forces the muscles to use a fuel source other than oxygen. Some of the most common anaerobic exercises are:

  • Weight lifting

  • Pilates

  • Yoga

  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT).

While aerobic workouts can last for a while without exhausting the body, anaerobic exercise is usually short bursts of full intensity effort. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are equally important for keeping the heart healthy and functioning at peak performance.

What are the short-term effects of exercise on the heart?

Short-term effects of exercise are those that take place during the activity itself. The two most important to the cardiovascular system are:

  • Faster heart contractions – During exercise and in the minutes afterward, the heart muscle contracts at a rate faster than at rest. Imagine that fast heartbeat you would feel while climbing up the steep mountain trail. These fast contractions allow the blood to circulate into and back out of the heart’s chambers quickly, bringing vital oxygen to all the parts of the body. By training the heart to move rapidly through its contraction cycle, you make the heart stronger and more efficient.

  • More forceful heart contractions – When you’re engaged in aerobic exercise, your heart contracts both more rapidly and more forcefully. That deep, thudding heartbeat you experience on a steep mountain hike—the one you can feel through the wall of your chest and hear in your ears—is a stronger contraction than you experience at rest. During strenuous exercise, the heart pushes more blood with more force through the circulatory system. By repeatedly and consistently training the heart to work in this intense way, the heart muscles grow stronger.

What are the long-term effects of exercise on the heart?

Long-term effects of exercise on the heart can be seen (and felt) in the days and weeks following the onset of exercise. Between two and four weeks after beginning a regular routine of aerobic exercise, people will begin to see such benefits as:

  • Decreased resting heart rate – As the heart muscle becomes stronger and more efficient thanks to all those faster, more forceful contractions it did during exercise at a target heart rate for weight loss, it will need to work less rapidly while resting. During rest, the time between beats will decrease because blood will be moving through the entire system more efficiently. Each beat will actually carry more blood with less effort. In turn, the value of a decreased heart rate is a lowered blood pressure.

  • Increased cardiovascular efficiency – Not only will time between beats be slower once the heart is consistently exercised, but each beat will actually carry more blood from the heart to the body extremities, and back again. As with a decreased rate, this change will help lower overall blood pressure.

Ancillary benefits of cardiovascular exercise

Detailed above are the direct benefits to the heart itself. Ancillary benefits that derive from a stronger and more efficient cardiovascular system are:

  • Increased mental alertness – Studies have shown that a heart-healthy lifestyle is associated with a decreased risk of stroke and improved cognitive function over the long-term.

  • Weight control – All those aerobic and anaerobic exercises you do to keep your heart healthy will be good for your joints and muscles, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels as well.

  • Better sleep – While poor sleep can lead to heart conditions, good sleep often derives from a properly functioning cardiovascular system. Without arrhythmias and irregularities to disturb you in the night, your sleep may be longer and deeper.

And, most importantly, a general feeling of wellness that redoubles your efforts on your fitness journey.

Support your heart health with Found

Reaching and maintaining ideal cardiovascular function is a cornerstone of good health, and routine aerobic exercise is how you get there. Not only does having ideal cardiovascular function keep you feeling good in the short term, by exercising regularly your cardiovascular system is better able to handle future stress.

Unfortunately, more than 60% of U.S. adults do not engage in the recommended amount of daily physical activity.

At Found, we put an emphasis on biology and not just strict diets and fitness regimes. We also recognize that a routine of regular movement that is tailored to you must be a part of your plan. By working together with a team of expert health coaches and physicians, we will support your heart on this journey to wellness.

To find out more, take our quiz today.

Sources: 

Frontiers In Cardiovascular Health. Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135/full

Dictionary.com. Cardio defined. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/cardio-#:~:text=Cardio%2D%20comes%20from%20the%20Greek,the%20Greek%20kard%C3%ADa%20are%20related.

 Vocabulary.com. Vascular defined

https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/vascular

 Medical News Today. What to Know About the Cardiovascular System. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/cardiovascular-system

CDC: Physical Activity Basics. How much physical activity do adults need?

https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm

 CDC: Surgeon General Report. Physical Activity and Health.

https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/adults.htm

National Public Radio. What’s Good for the Heart is Good for the Brain.

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/05/02/476209760/whats-good-for-the-heart-is-good-for-the-brain

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