Cardiovascular Disease: The Benefits of Exercise
Why are diet and exercise the dynamic duo for preventing cardiovascular disease? Simply put, a healthy diet keeps the sticky stuff off the lining of the arteries so it doesn’t build up and keep the internal medicine bottles from opening; exercise opens these medicine bottles. Here are some great reasons why movement is your best heart medicine:
1. Movement helps blood vessels muster up their own internal medicine.
Movement (such as walking, dancing, or swimming) gets the blood flowing faster over the lids of the medicine bottles in your arteries and releases your internal medicines. The nitric oxide mechanism is one of the most powerful total-body benefits of exercise. Think of exercise as a promoter of the pharmaceutical response of your arteries; it’s like walking into your pharmacy and picking up a bunch of free cardiovascular medicines that help your heart but have absolutely no harmful side effects. Even if the endothelium is damaged, exercise helps access whatever internal medicine it has and gradually restores much of the endothelium to better health. Exercise and diet are the best preventive medicines for endothelial dysfunction.
2. Movement prevents clogging of vessels.
Three main components contribute to the clogging and hardening of arteries: the buildup of fatty deposits (cholesterol, triglycerides, and other blood fats), the waste products left behind when the immune system tries to attack these fatty buildups (inflammation), and the excessive stickiness of the blood cells forming clots. The increased blood flow prompted by exercise opens the endothelial pharmacy, which in turn releases three internal medicines that reduce fatty buildup, control an overzealous inflammatory response, and lessen the stickiness of blood cells.
3. Movement reopens clogged vessels.
Besides building new vessels, movement reopens old vessels that are partially clogged with fatty deposits, a process called vascular remodeling. Prolonged exercise can widen blood vessels, increase their elasticity, and, when combined with an overall heart-health program, can partially dissolve plaque buildup, sort of like a plumber cleaning out a pipe. Remember our highway analogy? Well, unlike road surfaces, blood vessels enjoy a physiologic quirk in which increased traffic actually makes them smoother, wider, and less congested. Even if the endothelium is damaged, exercise helps restore it and improves its function. This is one reason why people who suffer a heart attack and then make movement their medicine live longer and healthier.
4. Movement makes your internal medicine stronger.
Not only does movement train muscles, it also trains blood vessels. Habitual movement keeps blood vessels relaxed and longer. This exercise-induced reactivity of blood vessels means that once blood vessels get used to lots of exercise and lots of fast blood flow, they become more reactive and open wider in response to exercise. Cardiovascular researchers call this upregulation, which simply means that when the vessel wall gets used to the increased blood flow from lots of movement, it relaxes more easily with less movement. An increase in vascular reactivity is one-way people with coronary artery disease who exercise regularly show improvement.
5. Movement lowers blood cholesterol.
Movement is the only cholesterol-lowering medication that has no side effects. Healthy cholesterol (HDL) acts as a sort of ferryboat garbage collector, shuttling excess blood cholesterol back to the liver before it has a chance to be deposited in the arteries or damage the endothelium. LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad (or less healthy) cholesterol, is the sticky stuff that works its way into and through the lining of the arteries and is a main contributor to arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. (I dislike the term bad cholesterol. Our bodies need some LDL. It’s the excess that makes LDL cholesterol bad.) This buildup of plaque damages the endothelium and, in effect, shuts down the production of the body’s natural heart medicine.
Ideally, you want to reduce excess LDL and increase HDL. Movement does both! Exercise causes increased blood flow, which prompts the endothelium to release substances that lower the LDL cholesterol and triglyceride fats in the blood vessels and raise the HDL. Movement has little or no effect on the LDL in some people, but raising the HDL exercise improves the total cholesterol/HDL ratio, which is a favorable index for cardiovascular risk.
6. Movement makes more blood vessels.
One of the most important heart-healthy effects of exercise is that it increases the vascularization of the heart muscle. The more blood vessels supplying a muscle, the more efficiently it performs. The richer the blood flow to an organ, the healthier it is an the longer it lives. Movement also enables diseased and blocked arteries to get a second chance. Exercise “opens” the blood vessel pharmacy to release endothelial-derived growth factor, EDGF, a substance that promotes the repair and growth of vessels. Given the right conditions, the body heals itself. If a river is dammed up (main artery blocked), tiny tributaries form to carry the water to the soil. If the main artery to an organ, such as a heart, is compromised, movement helps stimulate the growth of extra blood vessels (collateral circulation). Did you ever try to turn off a congested freeway during rush hour to find a quicker alternative route? That’s exactly what exercise does for organs whose blood flow is already partially blocked.
7. Move more and perk up your fitness genes.
Dazzling studies have shown that exercise increases blood flow across the endothelial surface and actually perks up the genes in these cells to release more nitric oxide. As the blood vessels pour out more internal medicine in just the right amounts, the vessels become more reactive (open up more) to vasodilating substances and less reactive to vasoconstricting substances, including stress hormones – they are trained to be fit.
8. Move more and relax your arteries.
When those little heart doctors within the endothelial wall hand out extra nitric oxide, it reduces the effect of stress hormones, like norepinephrine, on the blood vessel walls. Keeping your arteries relaxed is one of the keys to good health, and that’s one way exercise improves cardiovascular health.
Science says: Move more and open your arteries! People with more active lifestyles have larger coronary arteries.