Small steps can start path to a healthier heart

Health & Fitness column

February is American Heart Month. About 600,000 deaths (one out of every four) in the United States each year are from heart disease. This statistic is alarming, but there is good news. Although heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, it is preventable and controllable. As my Valentine gift to you, this article will discuss how to have a fit heart.

Some health conditions and lifestyle factors can put people at a higher risk for developing heart disease. You can help prevent heart disease by making healthy choices and managing any medical conditions you may have. Along with exercise, the following healthy habits will cut your risk for heart disease.

— Eat a healthy diet. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber can help prevent high cholesterol. Limiting salt or sodium in your diet also can lower your blood pressure.

— Maintain a healthy weight.

— Monitor your blood pressure.

— Don’t smoke.

— Limit alcohol use.

— Have your cholesterol checked.

According to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), “Every adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.” We can start by taking small steps every day to bring our loved ones and ourselves closer to heart health. Good health doesn’t just happen. It is the result of healthy living each day.

FITT, fit with two t’s, is an easy way to remember the exercise variables you can manipulate to avoid boredom and to keep your body challenged. By using the steps in the FITT Principle, you can develop a physical activity regimen personalized for your needs. This acronym refers to the following four variables.

— Frequency: How often you exercise. Frequency is generally expressed in terms of number of weekly exercise sessions (although technically you could perform multiple sessions in the same day).

— Intensity refers to how hard you train. You can estimate aerobic training intensity in several ways. The most popular method involves taking a percentage of maximal heart rate, as was discussed in my last article. I generally prefer using a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to gauge intensity. As you may already know, RPE is a measure of how hard you feel you are exercising. With respect to cardio exercise, RPE takes into account the physical sensations you experience during exercise, including increases in heart rate, breathing rate, sweating, and muscle fatigue.

— Time, meaning duration, refers to how long you train. As a general rule, duration is inversely related to intensity; you can go longer if you don’t train as hard.

— Type refers to the particular mode of exercise you’re doing. When selecting an exercise, choose those that are safe, and effective for what you’re trying to accomplish. Also, very importantly, the more enjoyable the activity, the more compliant you are likely to be. Strength and cardio/aerobic exercise are both important.

When you workout at sufficient frequency, intensity, time and with the right type of exercise, your body will improve. This is called the “Training Effect” and you’ll start to see changes in your weight, body fat percentage, cardio endurance and strength. When your body adjusts to your current FITT levels, it’s time to manipulate one of more of them. Changing any of these variables can help you keep that training effect going.

For example, if you’ve been walking three times a week for 20 minutes and you’ve stopped seeing improvement, you could change your program by implementing one or more of the following ideas:

— Frequency: Add another day of exercise.

— Intensity: Add short bursts of jogging, speed-walking or hill climbing.

— Time: Add 10-15 minutes to your usual workout time.

— Type: Do a different activity such as cycling, stair climbing or any other high-intensity aerobic exercise.

By changing one or more of these variables each week, you will soon feel better, look better, and have more endurance. Every journey begins with one step, whether it’s climbing a mountain or preventing heart disease. As you begin your journey to better health, keep in mind every step brings you closer to a fit heart.

Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine and has been in the fitness industry for more than 30 years.