How does exercise affect your cardiovascular system?

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Answered by: Suzanne, An Expert in the How to Reduce Cardiac Risk Category
Despite advances in care and prevention, cardiovascular disease kills more people in the developed world than any other cause, according to the Merck Manuals. Heart disease occurs in both men and woman and in all ethnic groups, and the disease impacts each individual in different ways. Close relatives of people who have died of or currently suffer from cardiovascular disease are at higher risk of developing the condition and should eat a healthy diet, exercise as recommended by their doctors, and avoid weight gain.

Cardiovascular disease is a disorder of the heart and the circulatory system, and the condition can affect other organs including your kidney and lungs. Your family history or genetics and your lifestyle both influence your risk factors. Smoking increases your risk as does having diabetes. Certain people have a predisposition to developing high blood pressure and resulting blockage of the blood vessels or arteries. You should limit sodium intake and the saturated fats and cholesterol in your diet if you have any risk factors for the disease. Moderate aerobic exercise performed at least 30 minutes a day can improve your cardiovascular fitness, help you maintain a healthy weight and help to avoid high blood pressure.

Chronic high blood pressure causes scarring of arteries and buildup of plaque, narrowing and stiffening them and restricting blood flow to the heart and other organs. The exact causes for high blood pressure remain unclear, but high sodium intake, a sedentary lifestyle and existing kidney disease are factors in the condition. Your heart must work harder to overcome the pressure against which it beats, and after years of strain, heart muscle thickens and becomes less flexible. When narrowed arteries limit or suddenly cut off blood supply and critical oxygen, heart attacks occur and heart muscle can die.

When even smaller blood vessels or capillaries stiffen and narrow, intermittent claudication, or muscle pain in your lower limbs can occur. Untreated, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease leads to congestive heart failure, a condition in which your heart no longer has the strength to supply our body with the blood, nutrients and oxygen it needs.

Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol, a waxy substance such as those from red meats, or trans fats synthesized artificially from vegetables, increase your likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease. The scarred walls of blood vessels trap and accumulate dietary cholesterol that circulates in the blood stream. The deposits eventually harden and form plaques, which can break off and plug the arteries, leading to strokes or heart attack.

High amounts of sodium in your diet increase blood pressure and the amount of fluid your body retains. Carbohydrates or sugars also play a role in cardiovascular disease, albeit an indirect one. Excess calories caused by high consumption of sweets and unrefined sugars lead to weight gain, and even being 10 pounds overweight can cause your blood pressure to spike above normal levels. Weight gain increases your risk for type 2 diabetes, another major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

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