In this series of blogs, I’ll be looking at the benefits of different types of fitness – and in celebration of the fact that it’s the London marathon this weekend, I’m kicking off with cardiovascular fitness.
Cardiovascular (or CV or cardio) exercise is the stuff that gets your heart beating faster for a sustained period, things like jogging, dancing, playing football or swimming. And it’s full of health benefits.
For the primary benefits the clue is in the name; cardio – regular exercise is vital for a healthy heart. Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the biggest killer in the UK, accounting for one in five male deaths, and one in eight female deaths. Those are scary sounding numbers, and there’s lots things that contribute to developing CHD, including hereditary factors, smoking, BMI (body mass index), but the good news is that you can substantially reduce your risk of CHD by ensuring you take regular physical exercise.
Your heart is a muscle, and like any other muscle, regular exercise will strengthen it and make it larger and more efficient so in effect it has to work less hard to get the same amount of oxygen around your body.
Over the long term it can also reduce blood pressure because the heart doesn’t have to pump so hard to get the blood round, and lower cholesterol, both of which help lower the risk of CHD by reducing the strain on the heart. And as your heart adapts and gets stronger from ongoing CV training you’ll find it easier to do things you previously struggled to do, whether that’s pushing yourself further in exercise, or just living life and doing things like running for the bus or up the stairs.
Regular CV exercise can also reduce the risk of certain cancers – Cancer Research UK estimates that keeping active could help to prevent more than 3,000 cases of cancer every year in the UK. Inactivity is the greatest risk factor in developing colon cancer, and breast cancer is linked to the percentage of body fat, so reducing excess body fat is a good way to decrease the risk of developing the most common form of breast cancer.
Type 2 (non insulin dependent) diabetes develops as the cells in the body become resistant to insulin or the body isn’t producing enough insulin. One of the main risk factors, along with genetic factors, age and ethnicity, is being over weight or obese – especially if you tend to put on weight around your stomach.
Which brings us on to another of the main reasons that people exercise. Almost 2/3 of UK adults are classed as being overweight or obese (with a Body mass index of over 25) and UK rates of obesity have more than trebled in the last 25 years. Whilst losing weight through exercise alone is very hard, it’s very effective when combined with a calorie controlled diet. Whilst I would guess the majority of people who exercise to lose weight are more driven by wanting to ‘look better’ the health benefits are enormous too. Losing weight can also help reduce the risk of diabetes, CHD, high blood pressure, arthritis, some cancers, gallstones, sleep problems, stress and depression and infertility. Not a list to be sniffed at!
Onto bones and joint strength – there’s a lot of talk of the damage that high impact CV exercise such as running can do as, and whilst this shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s also true that ‘weight bearing’ impact exercises, such as running, dancing and football (but not swimming or cycling) can do a lot to improve bone strength – we’ll look more at bone health in the next blog. Regular CV training will also develop the muscles – allowing you to carry on exercising for longer (muscle endurance).
Finally, and often overlooked, but for me, one of the most important factors, is the impact on mental health and wellbeing. Regular physical activity improves mental health, brain functioning and can help reduce stress and depression. Physical activity also helps prevent the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s in older age. This is one of the areas I’m really interested in, and I’ll be coming back to it in future blogs.