This is one of the most important questions, with an even more fabulous answer! Yes indeed cardio workout lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. And the protective mechanisms aren’t complicated. Cardiovascular fitness lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. This means your heart is working less on a beat-to-beat basis, and also your brain is supporting fewer high-pressure blood vessels. The result is less hardening of the arteries in both the heart and the brain, which lowers the chance of arterial damage causing heart attacks and strokes – hence the lower risk.
So what is good, regular cardio? For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends performing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week, or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week. Perhaps as important as structured workout time is the practice of incorporating exercise into your daily routines. I recently started walking to work, which means I have to walk home also! This is proving to be a great way to start my day, and also helps to unwind after work – and more objectively, both my resting heart rate and blood pressure have reduced considerably. Other tricks to get more exercise out of your day is to use the stairs at work rather than the elevator, or park at the far end of the parking lot and walk in.
Beyond heart attack and strokes, there are numerous other advantages to cardio exercise that give tremendous benefit to both the heart and brain. For the past decade or so, scientists have pondered how exercising can boost brain function. Regardless of age or fitness level, studies show that making time for exercise provides some serious mental benefits.
One of the most common mental benefits of exercise is stress relief. Working up a sweat can help manage physical and mental stress. Exercise also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress – boosting the body’s ability to deal with mental tension. Exercise also releases endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that exercise can be as effective as antidepressant pills in treating depression while helping folks with anxiety disorders to calm down. Similarly, physical fitness can boost self-esteem and promote a positive self-image. Regardless of weight, size, gender, or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of his or her attractiveness, that is, self-worth.
And finally, we must all contend with the process of age-related cognitive decline that may begin after the age of 45. Most concerning are conditions such as Alzheimer’s, which actually kills off brain cells causing brain shrinkage. Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning. To offset this, cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells (aka neurogenesis) and improve overall brain performance. Tough workouts can also increase levels of brain-derived protein (known as BDNF) in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning.