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Why Exercise Isn’t Enough to Keep Your Heart Healthy

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You may know how much you exercise every day. You might even know exactly how many steps you’re taking on a daily basis. But have you ever tallied up how many hours you spend sitting? For the majority of Americans, our days are largely spent seated: at the computer, in front of the TV and commuting to and from work. All that sitting can negatively impact your heart health, even if you work out every day. 

“It’s common to not move much throughout the day, and then try to make up for that sedentary behavior with 45 minutes of exercise. I’m guilty of it too,” says Michael Blaha, M.D., M.P.H., director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. “But that small period of exercise can’t compensate for a lack of activity all day long. We need both exercise and activity.”

What’s the difference between exercise and activity?

Exercise and activity are two different things. Exercise describes an intentional effort to raise your heart rate, strengthen your muscles and increase your flexibility. It’s structured time you set aside for focusing on your physical health. Activity, on the other hand, describes how much you move throughout the course of the day.  

For example, a sedentary person spends much of the day sitting. An active person does things such as walking, climbing stairs, standing and moving around most of the day — this can be because you have a physically demanding job or are running after your children, or because you make an effort to walk during meetings or use a standing desk.

While we’ve long known that setting aside time to exercise and elevate your heart rate is a healthy habit, increasing your activity level is essential, too. The trend toward inactivity has been dubbed “sitting disease,” and research suggests that being too sedentary throughout the day can increase your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.

Do normal-weight people need to move more?

Being at your ideal weight is great for your health, says Blaha, but it’s not a complete picture. It’s possible to be slim but not fit. In fact, you could be at your ideal weight and still have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or high blood sugar, which can increase your chances of a heart attack, stroke or diabetes.  

“Exercising and frequently moving throughout the day are good for everyone, no matter what weight you’re at,” says Blaha, “Regular activity is a crucial element of maintaining good heart health.”

How active do you need to be each day?

A healthy amount of exercise and activity is:

  • At least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to five times a week
  • Getting five minutes of movement every hour
  • Walking 10,000 steps a day

“Although I’m a big fan of the 10,000-steps-a-day goal, your goal shouldn’t necessarily be to do those steps all at one time,” Blaha says. “It’s better to spread your activity out during the day and get steps in every hour to meet your goal.”

Activity trackers can be especially helpful in motivating you to move more. Besides recording your movement to show you how much activity you’re getting, modern activity trackers can boost your heart health by sending you alerts when you’ve been sitting too long.

“Ideally, you should both exercise and have a high daily activity level,” Blaha recommends. “Research indicates that doing one or the other doesn’t provide the same level of heart-protecting benefits as doing both,” advises Blaha.

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