The importance of exercise for ageing heart health

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the leading cause of death worldwide and in Australia. Approximately 27% of all deaths and 11% of all hospitalisations are attributed to CVD in Australia, with more than 80% of hospitalisations being for people aged over 55 years.

Very high rates of CVD exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those living in remote areas (including farming communities).

Heart disease is strongly linked to risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, being inactive, being overweight, an unhealthy diet and depression.

The benefits of exercise

Exercise is wonderful for the heart, both to prevent CVD in the first place, and to ‘rehabilitate’ the heart after a big event such as a heart attack. There is excellent information provided by the National Heart Foundation of Australia on exercise for people with CVD.

Increasingly, exercise has been shown to be beneficial for the heart for people experiencing cancer or mental health issues. The heart is a muscle and like any other muscle, it benefits from exercise. It will become slower but stronger, and often reduce blood pressures. Exercise can also help the body to process cholesterol, sugars and fats. If the benefits of exercise could be captured into a single pill, it would be the most prescribed drug in the world.

Things to be aware of

If you are someone who already has cardiovascular disease, then your doctor or other health professional should have recommended some form of exercise to you. The first thing to do is to get proper exercise advice and a personalised exercise plan by an Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

You should start with a proper exercise assessment which should enable the exercise professional to design a program ideally suited to you that is both safe and effective. Then when you are underway, it is important that you monitor any symptoms that you may experience during or immediately after exercise and convey these to your exercise professional as soon as possible. In that way, any new or worsening of your condition can be dealt with appropriately so that you can quickly get back to exercise and a good lifestyle.

There are many smart fitness devices on the market now (watches, smartphone apps) that can be very helpful, but these often need to be adjusted for people with CVD. For example, it is often inappropriate or even unsafe to use the heart rate guides on these smart devices if you have CVD. Again, your accredited exercise professional will guide you on this.

Types of exercise recommended

The main forms of exercise that are known to improve heart health are aerobic exercise and strength exercise. Aerobic exercise includes walking, jogging (if you are able), cycling and swimming, and any variations of these such as golf or tennis. These modes of exercise can also be done in a gym using a treadmill or gym bike.

Strength exercises include lifting weights, using machines, rubber bands, balls or simple equipment such as a park bench or a wall, or even using your body-weight as the ‘resistance’. It is important for people with CVD that your exercise program be designed based on a proper assessment at the start.

Speak to the exercise professionals

ESSA has an online directory of more than 6,000 Accredited Exercise Physiologists around Australia who are highly trained to support you to develop and implement a safe, effective and personalised exercise plan.

Accredited Exercise Physiologists will understand the nature of whatever CVD you may have, and be able to properly assess you, design a plan that you will enjoy doing, and then support you through not only the good times, but other times that can be challenging.

Read more in the Exercise for Older Adults eBook! Download here. 

Expert Contributor: Professor Steve Selig, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and ESSA Fellow