Ah, February—a month filled with paper hearts, candy hearts, heart jewelry, heart garlands… you get the idea.
So why all the hearts? Sure, there’s Valentine’s Day—but more importantly, February is Heart Health Awareness Month. As a physical therapist at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, I have seen firsthand the importance of caring for your heart. Year after year, we treat a growing number of younger people with heart disease or stroke—and a large number of these patients are women.
You probably know that heart disease is the number one killer of women. But did you know that one woman dies every minute from this disease? But why is this? A huge part of heart disease’s disproportionate impact on women is that we are too busy caring for others to care for ourselves. Yes, taking time for exercise when you have children or aging parents to care for is not generally at the top of your to-do list. But making time is crucial.
Cardiovascular exercise refers to exercise which increases your heart rate and improves the function of your heart and lungs. This can include running, aerobics, elliptical training and other activities. And those aren’t the only benefits. Cardio can also decrease your resting blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps you manage stress, and—surprise!—burns calories for weight loss. But before you tie up your running shoes or dig your aerobics leotard out of storage, remember that exercise should be a long term lifestyle change that requires a commitment—not a short-term mission.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1) Make it part of your schedule. If you are new to exercise, think critically about how you can make it a regular part of your day. Start with small goals and smaller time commitments to ensure success. Then shoot for an average of 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise per day. Set goals for the week, the month and the year, maintaining a journal to help you stay on track.
2) Exercise the right way. I often have patients ask me how to know if they are working hard enough. A simple test is to examine your breathing and your voice. Cardiovascular exercise should not be so difficult that you cannot talk, but not so easy that you can sing.
3) Remember that exercise is cumulative. Too often I hear women say they don’t have time to go to the gym for an hour or take a half-hour run. But that assumes your daily cardio must all be completed in one session. So not true! If time is time, consider taking a 10 to 15 minute walk in the morning, at lunch time, and then again in the evening.
4) Bring a buddy. Enlist a friend to join you at the gym or on your daily walks. The social interaction is an added benefit—and setting an appointment with someone will keep you accountable.
5) Purchase a pedometer. If you are really a couch potato and want to increase your activity, consider purchasing a pedometer to keep track of the amount that you walk in day. Challenge yourself to build on your average, by 10 to 20 steps a day.
6) Exercise in the morning. Yes, I know. No one likes getting up early. But people who have successfully made a lifestyle change are those that exercise in the morning. By making exercise at the top of your to-do list, you are less likely to allow other interruptions to interfere with your work out.
7) Talk to your doctor. If you are new to exercise, start by seeing your primary care physician to make sure that you are safe to start an exercise routine. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors such as blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels and family history. It is never too late to make a positive impact on our health.
Exercise is one of the few things in life that only you can do for yourself. So while you’re sending out those valentines and flowers, don’t forget to give yourself a little love. Your heart will thank you.
-By Julie Cote, P.T., M.P.T., O.C.S., C.O.M.T.