Anatomy And Physiology

Heart Disease Cardiovascular Exercise Physical Activity Disease Prevention

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Exercise and nutrition in the prevention of cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease is a catch all term used to describe an array of diseases related to the heart and blood vessels. The heart is the pump that distributes blood throughout the body and the blood vessels are the tubes that carry the blood. A few types of cardiovascular disease include: coronary heart disease, ischaemic heart disease, hypertensive heart disease, valvular heart disease, arrhythmias (irregular heart beats), heart failure, heart attack, endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart and heart valves), pericarditis (inflammation of the sac that encompasses the heart), coronary artery disease, aneurysms, and arterial hypertension. All are different types of diseases of the heart, but all have something in common: nutrition and exercise play a vital role in the cause and prevention of the diseases.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. With an estimated 651,000 deaths due to heart disease, approximately 223 people out of 100,000 will die because of it. In the year 2005, it was estimated that 12% of the U.S. population was diagnosed with heart disease, that's 25.6 million people. Those are just the statistics of people diagnosed with heart disease, it does not account for the population of those with heart disease that don't know they have it or have not been diagnosed with it.

The bulk of research as to the cause of cardiovascular disease has been on the relationship between blood serum cholesterol levels and the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) (Ignarro, 2007). However, growing evidence in recent years indicates that nutritional factors such as antioxidants, dietary fibers, wine, vitamins, and minerals combined with physical exercise reduce risk factors for CVD (Ignarro, 2007).

Results of long term prospective studies consistently identify persons with low levels of risk factors such as maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking and moderating alcohol intake are estimated to account for an 84% reduction in CVD risk (Pearson, 2002).

The American Heart Association recommends an overall healthy eating pattern in the prevention of CVD. A healthy eating pattern including a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, fish, legumes, poultry, and lean meats. The AHA also recommends keeping saturated fats at a minimum at less than 10% of calories consumed and minimizing cholesterol intake to less than 300 mg a day. They also emphasize limiting salt intake to less than 6 grams a day, limiting alcoholic drinks to two or less a day in men and one or less a day in women (Pearson, 2002).

Significant evidence has shown that consumption of total fat, saturated and certain unsaturated fatty acids, dietary cholesterol, and sodium all contribute to risk of heart disease (Krauss, 1996).

Further emphasizing the avoidance of fats in CVD prevention, evidence shows that eating a moderately high-carbohydrate diet, 50% or more of total energy intake, is associated with low CVD risks with favorable lipid profiles (Yang, 2003).

When it comes to physical exercise and CVD, the AHA recommends at least 30-minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. Some physical activities the AHA suggests are brisk walking (15-20 min per mile), resistance training with 8-10 different exercises at 1-2 sets per exercise with 10-15 repetitions at moderate intensity for one or two days a week, and flexibility training such as yoga and or stretching exercises (Pearson, 2002).

Why does exercising and physical activity play such a vital role in cardiovascular health? The heart is essentially a fist-sized muscle and like skeletal muscles, exercising the heart strengthens it making its job less strenuous and more efficient. Exercise has a few more effects that benefit the heart. It improves cholesterol and lipid levels in the blood, the arc-enemies in the health of the heart and blood vessels. It also reduces inflammation of the arteries and helps keep blood vessels flexible and open.

Physical activity also keeps high blood pressure at bay. High blood pressure has long been known to be a contributing factor to CVD. In an epidemiological study done between 1971 and 1992, exercise was found to significantly reduce CVD risk among subjects with hypertension (Fang, 2004).

A study comparing subjects with CVD and exercise-only intervention showed a decrease in total mortality by 27%. In cardiac mortality, an exercise program significantly reduced cardiac death by 31% compared to CVD patients who did no exercise program (Thompson, 2003).

Research continues to demonstrate that nutrition and exercise play a vital role in the prevention of disease, whether directly or indirectly. Cardiovascular disease and heart health are no exception to this rule. With regular exercise or physical activity and a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in fats, one can significantly reduce the chances of acquiring a cardiovascular disease.


Fang, J., Wylie-Rosett, J., and Alderman, M. H. (2005). Exercise and cardiovascular outcomes by hypertensive status: NHANES I epidemiological follow up study, 1971-1992. American Journal of Hypertension, 18(6). Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

Ignarro, L. J., Balestrieri, M. L., and Napoli, C. (2007). Nutrition, physical activity and cardiovascular disease: an update. Cardiovascular Research, 73(2). Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

Krauss, R. M., et al. (1996). Dietary Guidelines for Healthy American Adults. Circulation, Journal of the American Heart Association. Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

Pearson, T. A., et al. (2002). AHA guidelines for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and stroke: 2002 update: Consensus panel guide to comprehensive risk reduction for adult patients without coronary or other atherosclerotic vascular diseases. Circulation, Journal of the American Heart Association. Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

Thompson, P. D., et al. (2003). Exercise and Physical Activity in the Prevention and Treatment of Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease. A Statement From the Council on Clinical Cardiology (Subcommittee on Exercise, Rehabilitation, and Prevention) and the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism (Subcommittee on Physical Activity). Circulation, Journal of the American Heart Association. Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

Yang, E. J., Chung, H. K., Kim, W. Y., Kerver, J. M., and Song, W. O. (2003). Carbohydrate intake is associated with diet quality and risk factors for cardiovascular disease in U.S. adults: NHANES III. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 22(1). Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

More about this author: April Showalter, MSHS, CHES

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