Stay active and fit

Regular physical exercise is arguably the best step you can take to protect your heart. Numerous studies have shown that people who exercise regularly have lower rates of coronary heart disease, heart attack, diabetes, and stroke than their sedentary neighbors.

Exercise is such a potent boon to the heart because it benefits so many aspects of cardiovascular health. It strengthens the heart muscle at the same time it helps keep weight, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure at healthy levels. It may also reduce arterial inflammation, which increases heart-attack risk, and may slow the progression of cardiovascular disease.

So, it's important to make the effort to fit exercise into your daily routine. With the help of your doctor, develop an exercise plan that includes the following elements. (Or, if you already exercise, refine your plan so that it includes these elements.)

Be sure to include aerobic activity
Aerobic exercise—brisk walking, swimming, bicycling, vigorous housecleaning, yard work—strengthens your heart and lungs, prevents obesity, and lowers the risk of many illnesses. Moderate exercise also reduces coronary-disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, and increases your “good” HDL cholesterol levels.

Plan to accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most if not all days of the week. You can accomplish that goal with a single 30-minute session, or with several shorter sessions that add up to 30 minutes.

Stretch yourself
Keeping the joints flexible permits pain-free bending and movement and may help prevent exercise injuries and soreness. Just 10 minutes a day of stretching promotes flexibility, keeps muscles supple, and helps you relax.

Stretching can be done before and after exercise routines, and worked into everyday activities.

Include strength training
Strength training with weights or resistance bands and with sit-ups, push-ups, and abdominal crunches helps preserve or restore your muscles. This type of training can build the muscles you need for daily activities and aerobic exercise, stem the weakness that comes with age, and boost your metabolic rate, or fat-burning capacity. (It also will help prevent bone and muscle loss, and lower the risk of back problems.)

Do at least two or three 20- to 30-minute sessions a week, focusing on the upper body, legs, and torso.

Be sure to include: balance
Poor balance increases the risk of falls and broken bones during exercise and at other times. The risk of injury increases with age.

And don’t forget to be safe
Here are some tips that will get your body up and running (or walking or swimming) without breaking down.

  • Get checked. See a physician before starting an exercise program.

  • Warm up. Muscles become more pliant and less likely to tear when they’re warm. Before you work out, spend 5 to 10 minutes (closer to 10 if you’re older or the weather’s cold) warming up. Choose a gentle exercise that engages the major muscles you'll be using during your workout.

  • Stretch. Don't confuse stretching with warming up; they’re separate but equally beneficial ways to loosen the muscles and joints. When stretching, pay extra attention to the muscles that will absorb the most shock.

  • Cool down. Stopping suddenly after vigorous exercise can trigger a potentially dangerous drop in blood pressure. Walk around until your heart rate drops to just 10 to 15 beats per minute over your resting rate. Then stretch again.

  • Slow down in extreme weather. Don't try to work as hard or as long as usual during the hottest or coldest times of the year.

  • Drink up. For most moderate exercisers, drinking as much as thirst dictates during or after a workout will usually prevent dehydration. But if you are overweight or over age 65, or if you tend to sweat heavily or exercise intensely or for a long time (especially in the heat), staying well-hydrated may take extra effort.

  • Graduate gradually. Increase the duration, distance, or intensity of your workouts by no more than 10 percent per week. And increase just one factor at a time. If you've lapsed in your exercise program, start at 50 to 75 percent of your old level and slowly work your way back.

  • Toss it up. Doing a mixture of different exercises can help fend off injury. Adding strength training to your aerobic workouts can fortify the muscles and joints, but if you do both on the same day, schedule the aerobic one first, since strength training temporarily tightens the muscles.

  • Don't work through the pain. Listen to your body. Aches and pains signal increased susceptibility to injury. As soon as you feel pain or shakiness, stop. If you're hurt, don't rush back to your regular workouts before you're fully recovered.

  • Block the shock. To protect your joints, shins, and feet, choose low-impact exercises and soft surfaces whenever possible.

  • Choose the right shoes. Make sure your footwear is designed for the type of exercise you're doing.

  • Check your medicine cabinet. Many drugs can impede athletic performance. If you suspect that a drug is interfering with your workouts, talk to your doctor.

  • Jump in the pool. Experts say that the greater resistance of water compared with air, combined with its buoyancy, offer benefits that are difficult to get on land.