The importance of cardio exercise in weight loss, weight maintenance and good heart health

Cardio exercise reduces total body fat, and subsequently waist and hip circumference, which are important markers of health.

If the weather is hot, you can just take the stairs. Pawan Singh / The National
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Cardiovascular (cardio) exercise is essentially any movement that increases a person’s heart rate to improve the body’s oxygen flow. It can be of lower impact or intensity, such as walking, cycling, swimming or rowing, or higher impact such as running or skipping. In any case, the importance of cardio exercise cannot be underestimated.

Dr Faisal Hasan, staff physician, cardiovascular medicine, Heart & Vascular Institute, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, explains: “Extensive inactivity can negatively affect one’s body and health. It slows down the body’s metabolism and affects its ability to regulate blood sugar and break down body fat.

“Inactivity and sedentary behaviour can also lead to reduced blood circulation due to compressed veins, and can affect the body’s blood-pressure regulation. This can lead to strokes, heart attacks or irregular heart rhythm. Cardio exercise helps boost heart health by aiding the body in controlling blood pressure and decreasing the likelihood of heart failure,” he says.

Cardio exercise reduces total body fat, and subsequently waist and hip circumference, which are important markers of health. Biologically, it improves the heart’s fitness and its ability to supply oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, allowing them to produce movement.

It also helps to increase HDL (high-density lipoprotein, also known as “good” cholesterol because it helps remove other forms of cholesterol from your bloodstream) and decrease LDL (low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol, which can eventually build up within the walls of your blood vessels, narrowing the passageways and leading to a heart attack or stroke). Increasing your HDL lowers the risk of heart disease, can improve blood glucose control and assist in weight loss. Both of these factors lower the risk of a heart attack.

In terms of how much cardio exercise is needed, Hasan says: “The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association both recommend all healthy adults under the age of 65 either perform moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as brisk walking, for a minimum of 30 minutes for five days a week, or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as running or jumping rope, for a minimum of 20 minutes for three days a week. For optimum health benefits, it is recommended to combine the recommended cardio exercises with muscle-strengthening activities throughout the week.”

Your target training heart rate should be between 50 and 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate. This can be calculated as 220 beats per minute, minus your age (for example, the target for a 40-year-old is 180 beats per minute). But go gradually. When you start working out, aim for 50 per cent of your maximum heart rate. As you train for a longer period of time, aim to reach 85 per cent.

That said, our busy daily grind can easily distract us. The main challenge is to maintain the reasonable amount of exercise which is essential to our health. The best and most sustainable way to do this is to find ways to build an exercise regime into your daily life.

“There are a number of easy lifestyle changes people can make to get more active during the day,” Hasan advises. “Simple measures include walking a route you enjoy, taking the stairs, running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike while watching TV.

“Cardio activity necessary to improving heart health can be added to everyday routine activities without interrupting them, and any amount of physical activity is beneficial.

“For example, you could park your car further away from your office, or get into the habit of taking 15-minute walks after you’ve eaten your lunch. If the weather is too hot, you could always do some window-shopping for 15 to 30 minutes at the nearest mall if it’s within reach.”