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Preventing Heart and Blood Vessel Problems

Cardiovascular disease is the term used to describe problems involving the heart (cardio) or blood vessels (vascular). The most devastating complications of cardiovascular disease are stroke and heart attack; these can often be fatal. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death overall in the United States; the statistics that one in five Americans has cardiovascular disease includes women.

Active, exercising women already have lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease, as exercise affords the best heart protection. The recommendation by the American Heart Association is 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity 5 days a week. Aerobic exercise, which raises heart rate and uses up oxygen, improves cholesterol levels and maintains the peak functioning efficiency of heart and blood vessels. It also trains the cells to carry oxygen more efficiently and improves the rate of oxygen uptake in breathing.

High blood pressure is a precursor to heart and blood vessel disease. Blood pressure is necessary to promote exchange of nutrients from the blood into the capillaries and into the body. If there are problems such as hardened arteries, slow or inefficient heart functioning, or increased body demands due to poorly trained muscles, blood pressure rises. Because regular exercisers do not usually have these problems, blood pressure remains low. This reduces the occurrence of bad side effects of blood pressure such as heart attack and stroke. Studies have recently shown that regular exercise of moderate intensity for one hour five days a week is as effective as medication in managing high blood pressure.

The unmodifiable factors that can also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease are family history of stroke or heart attack, especially in family members under the age of 50; high cholesterol or triglycerides; and diabetes. Modifiable factors include smoking, obesity, and inactivity. Less clear but risky lifestyle behaviors are high stress and poor diet (high sugar and saturated fat/high cholesterol/low fiber). If you have any of these increased risks, you should see your doctor to discuss prevention methods in addition to exercise. These may include an aspirin a day, a low-cholesterol, unsaturated fat, high-fiber diet, and medications.

Factors That Increase Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

  • High LDL cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • High triglycerides
  • Inactivity
  • Diabetes
  • Stress
  • Family history
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking
  • Older age
Because women who have been through menopause are at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, and women taking oral contraceptives or hormone replacement can be at an increased risk of stroke and blood clots, if you are in these categories and have the risk factors mentioned above, consult with your doctor for the best prevention strategies. Other heart-protective dietary behaviors can include a high-fiber, low glycemic index diet, increasing amount of omega-3 fatty acids, adding soy products, and having (only) one alcoholic drink per day.

Health Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

  • Prevents heart disease
  • Decreases osteoporosis risk
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces depression
  • Reduces strokes
  • Reduces cancer
  • Prevents obesity
  • Reduces stress
  • Prevents diabetes
  • Improves sleep
  • Reduces cholesterol

From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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