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The Most Important Thing You Can Do for Your Heart

By Elizabeth Battaglino, RN, CEO of HealthyWomen

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It's tough to ignore heart health when we are reminded every February by American Heart Month, an observance begun in 1964. Although there's been a lot of progress in raising awareness since then, cardiovascular disease accounts for a startling number of deaths each year: 17.3 million lives are lost, with that number expected to rise to more than 23.6 million by 2030.

Recently, an Australian study reported physical inactivity to be the single biggest contributor to heart disease risk in women over 30. When researchers followed more than 32,000 women and calculated how smoking, high blood pressure, physical inactivity and being overweight contributed to their heart disease risk, they found that in younger women, smoking was the most important factor. But for older women—those in their 70s, for example—physical activity lowered their risk three times more than quitting smoking did; it lowered it even more than losing weight or lowering blood pressure.

There's no underestimating the benefits of increasing your physical activity when it comes to heart disease risk and improving your overall quality of life. And of course, it extends far beyond that, also benefiting your cognitive health, bone health and mood. Additionally, exercise helps strengthen your muscles and reduces your risk for certain cancers.

Keep in mind that physical activity can go beyond a trip to the gym: decrease your sedentary living by doing little things like standing more and sitting less, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, getting up from your desk to talk to a coworker in lieu of sending an email and using your body to stretch, turn and bend (otherwise known as NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis).

Even if your goal is not weight loss, increasing physical activity is important because it can be help protect against heart disease risk, says a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. In a 2009 article, Steven N. Blair calls physical inactivity "one of the most important public health problems of the 21st century."

To reduce your cardiovascular disease risk, the Centers for Disease Control suggests you get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (that's two hours and 30 minutes each week). And of course, you can reduce your risk even more if you get more than that.

Remember, if you're inactive now, take your time and make changes gradually. Too much too soon will leave you exhausted, overwhelmed and possibly injured. Taking things slowly and deliberately will put you on the right path toward good heart health. In fact, within weeks of starting an exercise program, your blood pressure will begin to drop, your heart will beat more efficiently and your energy level will skyrocket.

What are you waiting for? Get moving.