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According to a study published in the journal Circulation , fewer than one in four adults achieves the amount of physical activity recommended by researchers and health experts. Many adults report low levels of physical activity, which is a common feature among individuals with elevated risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD). In order to prevent or treat CVD, studies show that regular exercise needs to be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle.
Physical inactivity increases your risk of heart disease because it contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries . Plaque can cause the arteries to narrow or stiffen – a condition known as atherosclerosis – resulting in decreased blood flow to the heart. If left untreated, this can eventually lead to a heart attack or damage the heart muscle, which inevitably leads to heart failure.
CVD is the leading cause of death globally, but according to the World Heart Federation, it can be prevented by following a healthy diet , avoiding tobacco, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active. Current guidelines recommend doing 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity weekly, or an equivalent combination of both, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. While this may seem daunting for many, the benefits of being physically active, particularly for cardiovascular health, are well-documented by studies.
Fortunately, recent investigations show that even low levels of physical activity – lower than the recommended amount, that is – can still provide substantial cardiovascular benefits. In fact, the American Heart Association suggests that something as simple as a daily 20-minute walk could reduce the harmful effects of an inactive lifestyle on your heart. (Related: Do these exercises in the morning to boost your heart function and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke .) The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle
Low physical activity levels are believed to be influenced by various factors , such as traffic congestion, air pollution, a shortage of parks or pedestrian walkways, and a lack of sports or leisure facilities. Television, computers and cell phones also contribute to the increasingly sedentary lifestyle observed in modern society.
Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the fact that physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. Research has found that a sedentary lifestyle is strongly associated not only with many chronic conditions , such as CVD, diabetes mellitus and cancer, but also premature death. Lack of physical activity is also associated with an elevated risk of developing metabolic disorders , such as hypertension, dyslipidemia and obesity.
Sedentary behavior is closely linked to the prevalence of cancer . A Canadian study investigated the correlation between sedentary behavior and cancer prevalence and found that cancer risk is 13 percent higher among individuals with the longest sedentary time compared to those with the shortest sedentary time. A separate study also reported that being sedentary for long periods can increase your overall cancer risk by 20 percent.
In older women, sedentary behavior has also been negatively associated with bone mineral density . A European study reported that bone mineral density is correlated with the duration, not the frequency, of sedentary behavior. Older women who spend more time being sedentary tend to have lower bone mineral density than physically active women. Loss of bone mineral density, which also occurs as a consequence of age-related estrogen decline, leads to osteoporosis .
Prolonged sedentary time has also been correlated with chronic knee pain . Studies show that the incidence of chronic knee pain is higher in individuals with longer sedentary times. In particular, being sedentary for more than 10 hours a day is markedly correlated with chronic pain in the knees. (Related: Not all pain should be treated with NSAIDs .)
Mentally passive sedentary behaviors, such as television viewing, sitting, listening to music and talking while sitting, have also been positively correlated with depression risk . Researchers believe that sedentary behaviors increase depression risk by either blocking direct communication and lowering social interactions or by reducing the available time a person has to engage in physical activities that help prevent or treat depression .
Interestingly, mentally active sedentary behaviors, such as reading books or newspapers, driving, attending a meeting or knitting and sewing, do not seem to increase a person’s risk of depression. Nevertheless, studies show that being sedentary does not provide any benefits, but being physically active eliminates the increased risk of death from serious health issues associated with longer sitting times.
A sedentary lifestyle has also been found to cause unfavorable changes in cognitive function , while a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity has been shown to offer brain benefits . Reduce your risk of heart disease by being physically active
According to Daniel Lackland, a professor and cardiovascular disease researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina , people who are completely inactive will benefit the most from adding a 20-minute walk to their daily routine. This short bout of physical activity can help improve risk factors for CVD, such as body weight, blood pressure and blood sugar.
While walking is the simplest heart-healthy exercise that you can do, you don’t have to limit yourself to just that. You can get creative and explore other activities, such as cycling, swimming or jogging. Climbing the stairs in your office building or even doing fitness routines while you’re sitting can also help improve your heart health tremendously.
Lackland also said that you don’t need to do the 20 minutes all at once. If you’re busy, you can break your walk into two or even five separate walks over the course of a day and the results will be the same.
“Certainly, the more exercise and rigorous the activity, typically the better [it will be] for cardiovascular health,” […]