Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Exercise

It’s time to focus on strengthening the most important muscle in the body, the heart.   Just like any muscle, your heart can become stronger or weaker depending on your activity level.  “Cardio” exercise is so named, because it strengthens the heart, or cardiovascular system.  The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, which breaks down to 30 minutes, 5 days a week.

benefits of cardiovascular exercise

The benefits of cardiovascular exercise are incredible!  Not only does sustained aerobic activity strengthen your heart, it can help with weight loss, improve self-esteem, improve sleep, improve body composition, strengthen your mind, create an overall feeling of well-being and give you more energy.  Think of cardio exercise as one of the best investments you can make into your future!  Regular exercise can help lower your heart rate, decrease your cholesterol and help reduce blood pressure, not to mention improve your overall quality of life.

new blood pressure guidelines

Each time the heart muscle contracts it does two major things. One, it supplies blood to itself (very important to keep that muscle going) and second, it supplies fresh oxygenated blood to the rest of the body.  Our blood pressure measures how much pressure the heart muscle has to pump against.  The American College of Cardiology and AHA have established new guidelines for blood pressure.  Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg.  Elevated is a systolic (top number) of 120-129 and diastolic (bottom number) less than 80. Stage 1 is a systolic of 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89.  Stage 2 is a systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mmHg.  A Hypertensive Crisis is a systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120 with patients needing prompt changes in medication or immediate hospitalization if there are other signs and symptoms.  They call high blood pressure “the silent killer” because the heart is working on overdrive, but people don’t feel anything until a heart attack.  It is normal for your blood pressure to increase with exercise, so for accurate readings check it multiple days at the same time to get an average.

heart rate and fitness

How fit are you?  Find out what your resting heart rate is.  The lower your resting heart rate, the better shape you are in.  A typical resting heart rate ranges from 60-100 beats per minute (bpm).  To find your pulse manually take your pointer finger and middle finger and slide them down from your ear at an angle toward your chin, stopping lightly in the middle of your neck (or use a heart rate monitor).   Take your resting heart rate while you are lying in bed in the morning.  Take a reading over 30 seconds and then multiply by two to get your resting heart rate.  If you regularly exercise, or are hoping to improve your health you should know your numbers (heart rate and blood pressure).

target heart rate and training zones

Once you know your resting heart rate and how to find your pulse you can focus on your target heart rate for cardio exercise.  To determine your target heart rate, first calculate your theoretical maximum heart rate. Your theoretical max heart rate can be estimated by taking the number 220 minus your age (it can be actually calculated by doing an exercise stress test, or submaximal exercise test).   The AHA recommends training in the range of 50-85% of your maximum heart rate to reap the benefits of cardio exercise.  For example, if you are 55 years old, your theoretical max heart rate is 165, your target heart rate training zone is 83-140 bpm.  When you are just starting out, focus on maintaining your heart rate at the lower end of your training zone.  As you progress and your heart becomes stronger you will be able to exercise at higher heart rates for prolonged periods.  Always consult a physician before beginning an exercise program if you have any concerns, especially if you have had heart problems in the past.  Certain heart medications can affect your heart rate and therefore how it responds to exercise.

There are many great modes of cardiovascular exercise from walking, biking, jogging, and swimming to FIT classes offered at U-District.  New research suggests that even 10-15 minute bouts that add up to 30 minutes throughout the day can make a positive effect on the heart.  A walking program may be one of the easiest places to start if the gym is still intimidating.  Learn your own numbers, make cardio your priority, and invest in your heart and your future.