Feb. 17, 2021

Physical activity and cardiovascular health

Q&A with Libin Institute experts

It’s well known that activity is critical to physical and mental health. Despite most people understanding the importance of being physically active, 82 per cent of Canadians struggle to meet the recommended targets for physical activity. Others may not understand how to get started or what types of exercise is best for them. For these reasons, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute is kicking off Heart Awareness Month with Libin Moves, a five-month lifestyle and movement program starting in February 2021. Libin Moves is about optimizing cardiovascular health by breaking down the barriers and getting people moving at least 150 minutes per week.  Continue reading for advice from the University of Calgary’s Dr. Shaminder Singh, PhD, RN and postdoctoral researcher whose work focuses on health promotion, and Dr. Lin Yang, PhD, an epidemiologist, research scientist and adjunct assistant professor who works in the field of physical activity for chronic disease prevention and management. 

1. Why is physical activity important? 
Singh – Physical activity can help prevent chronic illnesses and disease, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to a gym. Even if you have mobility issues, are at the office or quarantined at home, you can get active. For example, do some gardening or cleaning, watch an at-home aerobics video, walk or bike on the local trails or do a short yoga or tai chi session. 
Yang – The important thing is to just move more and sit less. 

How much should I move?
Singh – According to new Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines, adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous* physical activity each week. These guidelines, which include specific recommendations for sleep, sedentary behaviour and physical activity for all different age groups, are available here: https://csepguidelines.ca/. The guidelines are the first-ever comprehensive recommendations for all age groups that integrate physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep.  
*Moderate exercise means you will be able to hold a conversation while exercising. If you are exercising vigorously, you won’t be able to maintain a conversation.

What is sedentary behaviour and why is it unhealthy? 
Yang - Sedentary means being in a sitting or lying posture and expending little energy. There is growing evidence that sedentary behaviour, particularly prolonged sitting such as while watching TV or sitting at a computer, is bad for your physical and mental health. Researchers recommend breaking up sedentary periods (such sitting at your computer or watching television) with periods of activity like doing chores around the house. 

How do I overcome the barriers to activity? 
Yang – It's not easy for many people, but there are lots of ways to get motivated. Try setting notifications throughout the day to remind get moving or use a free app to track your steps and activities. Finding a community or friend to engage in physical activity with, or simply be accountable to, can be helpful. You could also try taking an online class or joining a team. Be sure to reward yourself for your successes. 
Singh – Consistency is more important than intensity, especially at the beginning. For example, if you work at a computer all day and sit for long periods,  your initial goal could be to get up from the desk every hour to move or stretch for a few minutes. Consistent small achievements can help you to aim for increasingly complex goals such as running, brisk walking or muscle exercise for 10 minutes on alternative days. Barriers such as lack of time can be discussed with family, colleagues, employers and health care providers like your physician, community health nurse, or health coaches.

What are the components of a good exercise program?
Yang – A thorough program includes activities in the following areas: cardio, strength, flexibility and balance.  With social distancing, home-based comprehensive exercise programs are good choices. For mind-body options, consider activities like tai chi or yoga. It is important to find the exercise program or the type of physical activity that you enjoy doing, so you are more likely to stick to it.
Singh- A program should include a movement-based activity of your choice, ability and availability. It should also include ways to make the process automatic. For example, use an already established habit, such as finishing your morning routine, as a trigger to go for a walk or follow an exercise regime from your favourite YouTube channel.

How do I get started on an exercise program? 
Yang - Start with small, sustainable changes that can lead to big gains. For example, those with relatively inactive lifestyles can commit to walking three times a week. Once established, adding strength training, like squats, lifting weights (or even cans from your pantry) and stretching can improve your fitness level. Active individuals are encouraged to main their activity level and invite an inactive friend or family member to take part. 
Singh – Knowing you need to move more is the first step. Making small changes that fit in your day is the easiest way to get started. Involving family and friends can make activities fun. Developing a habit loop for physical activity can reinforce behaviour. This involves a cue, like finishing your morning routine, that triggers a routine, such as a 20-minute brisk walk, and leads to some sort of reward, which can be as simple as feeling good.