Why is walking so great for heart health? Walking is promoted more than any other cardio or exercise activity for countless reasons. Nearly everyone can walk regardless of age, sex, location, economic status – even those battling chronic disease. Even for those with a preexisting heart condition, walking is highly encouraged by physicians to prevent and treat chronic heart disease.
Whether or not you have a chronic heart condition, walking can help improve your cardiovascular health. Those with heart conditions can still walk to improve their heart health, but there are some important factors to consider to walk safely. Here’s what you need to know about walking and your heart!
Important Note: If you have a chronic illness, heart condition or if you’ve recently had surgery, make sure to consult your doctor before starting a walking routine. Your doctor can review your specific situation and recommend how much walking, if any, is right for you!
Heart Health Benefits Of Walking
The National Institutes of Health report that walking is one of the first steps people should take in cardiovascular disease prevention. A study evaluating the protective effects of walking found that there were immediate benefits, such as a decrease in blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Long term benefits included a reduced risk of developing coronary heart disease and a lower chance of suffering a future coronary event.
For most of human history, walking was part of our everyday routine! We love hearing stories of isolated groups of peoples who live healthier lifestyles out of necessity. One such group, the Tsimane, (found in Bolivia’s Amazon rainforest) have an interesting story to tell. NPR reported on this native population in their article: Who Has The Healthiest Hearts In The World? This group wins the award for having extremely low rates of atherosclerosis, or arterial plaque. An 80-year-old Tsimane has the vascular age of an American in their mid-50’s. As they are occupied with hunting, farming, and gathering, they do lead an active lifestyle. Interestingly enough, their lifestyle doesn’t consist of vigorous exercise as we know it – going to the gym and running, jumping and lifting weights. Instead, their days are spent walking, cumulatively reaching some 7.5 miles daily. They are also active 90% of the time during daylight hours.
France, Japan and Korea are also renowned for having some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. Readers Digest suggested that one of the reasons these countries have the lowest heart attack rates is because of how much walking the people there do. They live in environments that encourage walking and this has become part of their daily routine.
Why is walking a great exercise to improve heart health?
The American Heart Association recommends doing moderate-intensity activity for 150 minutes a week. That’s 30 minutes per day, 5 days weekly. Additional benefits can be gained by 300 minutes of walking weekly (60 minutes per day, 5 days weekly). Walking is an excellent method of getting in the suggested daily allowance of exercise because it’s safe, easy to do and can be customized for your individual circumstances.
Walking to prevent heart disease
Harvard Health lists the heart-healthy benefits of walking as improved “cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, vascular stiffness and inflammation, and mental stress.” Starting a walking routine earlier in your life can help prevent you from developing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Walking can also benefit your musculoskeletal system by improving bone density, allowing for greater flexibility and improving joint movement. It’s never too late to start walking, however!
Walking if you have a preexisting heart condition
If you have been diagnosed with angina, congestive heart failure or some other chronic cardiac condition, excessive exertion from exercise can exacerbate your symptoms. Walking, on the other hand, is one of the safest forms of exercise and is even encouraged in most situations. If you have a heart condition, make sure to carefully control the intensity and duration of your walks so as not to put too much stress on your heart. A great way to do this is to take several shorter strolls throughout the day in order to get your steps in without exerting yourself too much at any given time.
Walking after a cardiac event or surgery
Walking will likely be initiated in the hospital under medical supervision before you are signed off for discharge. Usually, the doctor will order an easy stroll, gradually increasing in distance and intensity, and performed 3-4 times a day to start. After discharge, you will be encouraged to continue this light walking routine and likely cardiac rehab performed in a supervised setting for a period of time. Make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions on how much to walk, and when to stop. You can even use Pacer to ensure you’re not walking too much in this case.
Safe Walking Tips For Those With Heart Problems
Consider your environment
If you enjoy walking outdoors, walking with a friend is always great whether or not you have a health condition. If you do have health issues and opt to walk alone, make sure you carry a cell phone with you and have emergency contact numbers easily accessible. Always let someone know your whereabouts before walking solo. (If you’re on iOS, you can try Pacer Routes with safety contacts enabled)
If you’re dealing with temperature extremes (hot or cold), you may want to look for an indoor walking area such as an indoor walking track at a gym or even walking in a shopping mall.
It helps to plan your route ahead of time so you know what you’re getting into. You may want to avoid hills or difficult terrain. Plan to take frequent breaks where you can sit down for a spell and rest. A park with benches, many indoor locations, or even a stop at your favorite coffee shop are great ways to take a break. You can consider even checking your heart rate or consulting it on a pulse monitor, and then stopping if it gets too high.
Don’t be afraid to cut your walk short
If you start to feel unusually tired, call it a day and attempt your walk again at another time. If you’re just starting out, it’s often good to walk a few laps near your house so that you can easily cut your walk short if you’re feeling tired. If you do take longer walks, or walk away from home, make sure you have an option available to get home if need be. This could be a friend who can pick you up, a ridesharing service, or some other method.
If you begin having difficulty breathing or chest pain, call 911 immediately. Make sure to talk to your doctor about warning signs for serious health issues, and stop as soon as you feel any coming on. Your health is more important than one day’s step count, so if you’re not feeling great or if you even think you’re experiencing heart-related symptoms, err on the side of caution.
Walking is one of the best exercises you can do for heart health. Whether you’re walking to stave off heart issues in the future, or walking to improve heart problems you already have, you can get amazing health benefits by walking. Join the heart-healthiest people on earth, and keep on track with your walking routine. Walking may be just what your heart needs!