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Ten Good Reasons To Exercise

By Beth Greenaway

Recent media coverage has shown that only a small percentage of the population in the UK gets the recommended amount of exercise each week.

We are rapidly turning into a nation of overweight, sedentary (non-exercising), unhealthy individuals, who display many of the risk factors for acquired heart disease (that caused by lifestyle and not congenital conditions). People know that exercise can help them to reduce the risks of developing many health conditions, but simply do not have the time or know how to begin an exercise program.

GUCH patients have many issues that can stop them from exercising, or reduce their ability when they do. They have symptoms such as breathlessness, which are made worse by activity. The difficulty for GUCHs is that there is little difference between the symptoms caused by their heart condition or those of simply not being fit, as indeed they are very similar. Being unfit could well make your symptoms worse, further reducing your ability to perform daily activities. As with anything new, the best place to start is by having a conversation with your GUCH consultant about exercise. They should be able to advise you if there is any clinical reason for you not to exercise, or if there are particular activities that you should avoid.

Providing that you are physically able, and have been cleared by your doctor, the benefits from starting even a gentle exercise programme are huge. A lot of people do not begin because they believe that exercise is naturally unpleasant, painful and time consuming. In fact, the opposite can be true, with just twenty minutes of moderate intensity exercise (e.g. walking) on most days of the week giving significant health benefits. This can even be divided into two ten-minute sessions if it is easier. Even people in wheelchairs can improve their level of fitness. Just last weekend a man in a wheelchair with no legs and only one arm beat me in a running race!

I recognise that, to many, twenty minutes of exercise seems like a lot. The most important thing to remember is that some activity is better than none, and that more activity (up to a point) is better than less. Obviously even greater benefits can be gained from increasing the intensity or the duration beyond this level, but it is not necessary. I have found that the simplest way to build up to this level is to incorporate your exercise into your activities of daily living, such as taking a walk with your dog. Making exercise fun and sociable is also important. Try joining an water aerobics class at the local swimming pool, or going for a weekend bike ride with a friend. It is not necessary to invest in expensive equipment, join a gym or hire a personal trainer to enjoy the benefits.

Listed below are what I believe are the ten main reasons for a GUCH (or anybody else) to exercise. I have tried to pick those that are of particular relevance to GUCH patients, or reduce our risk of developing common diseases and conditions that can lower quality or quantity of life. Regular exercise can:

1. REDUCE YOUR RISK OF ACQUIRED HEART DISEASE

This is a big one. Just because we are GUCH patients does not mean that we are immune from suffering from heart attacks, strokes, and angina. We are living longer into adulthood, and consultants are starting to see GUCH patients with the same issues as members of the general population.

I accept that my congenital heart defect may reduce my life expectancy, but do not intend to potentially reduce this further by living a poor lifestyle (smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet and lack of exercise).

2. STRENGTHEN THE HEART AND LUNGS

Even a moderate amount of exercise can increase the efficiency of the heart muscle. It can improve its pumping ability by reducing the effort it takes to circulate blood and oxygen around the body. Exercise improves heart muscle function and blood flow, and diminishes the chances of developing blood clots. It can also lower your resting heart rate, and relieve stress on your heart. I believe that being fit before my last surgery not only reduced my symptoms, but also enabled me to recover very quickly from the operation.

3. NATURALLY LOWER OR CONTROL BLOOD PRESSURE

Many studies have shown that exercise is a great way to reduce your risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure). Even if your particular congenital heart defect means that you already need to take tablets to control your blood pressure, exercise may enable you to stabilise your condition and avoid increasing your medication dose.

4. HELP WITH WEIGHT LOSS AND MAINTENANCE

Exercise elevates the metabolism so more calories are burned each day. It increases the breakdown and use of fat for energy during activity, and can reduce your Body Mass Index (BMI) or fat to height ratio. This figure is a good predictor of your risk for developing obesity-related conditions such as acquired heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and certain cancers.

5. BE AN EXCELLENT DE-STRESSOR

Many GUCH patients have times when they feel depressed or helpless about their health situation. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to lift your mood, give you something positive to focus on, reduce anxiety, and offer a positive outlet for the stress. It can improve your self-esteem and confidence, and help you to deal with the emotional ups and downs of your condition. For me, the mental benefits I gain from exercising are as great, if not greater, than the physical ones.

6. IMPROVE MUSCLE STRENGTH, JOINT STRUCTURE AND JOINT FUNCTION

Exercise can increase not only the strength of a muscle, but also the bones and surrounding tissues. If you regularly ask the body to perform an activity it is not used to, it will ultimately adapt and grow in strength, thus increasing your ability to perform daily tasks more easily. Weight bearing exercise such as walking is particularly important for women, as it helps to reduce the risk of osteoporosis (low bone density) and fractures. Exercise has been shown to promote joint health for everyone, but especially those who suffer from arthritis. It can increase the thickness of cartilage in the joints, thus protecting them from wear and tear in the future.

7. IMPROVE YOUR ENERGY LEVELS

When you first start an exercise programme, it can leave you feeling more tired than before. By taking it gradually and building up slowly, your body should adapt to the new requirements and it will become easier. Regular exercise will increase your aerobic capacity (fitness level), endurance and stamina. This gives you the ability to go through the day with less energy expenditure, and thus enables a 'fit' person to accomplish their daily tasks with less fatigue.

8. DECREASE THE BLOOD LEVEL OF TRIGLYCERIDES (FAT) AND LDL OR 'BAD' CHOLESTEROL

These can contribute to the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, and ultimately increase your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Exercise is an excellent tool to prevent you from developing a high cholesterol in the future. If you know that your cholesterol level is already high, exercise can be used in conjunction with dietary modification to help you naturally reduce your level, and maybe avoid the use of prescription medication.

9. BOOST YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM

Many GUCH patients dread the onset of winter weather, and the accompanying coughs and colds. Moderate exercise has been shown to lower your chances of developing these illnesses, and reduce the severity and longevity of your symptoms if you do. Exercise can improve your quality and quantity of sleep, which gives the body more time to rest and rebuild its defenses.

10. MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF!

In addition to the benefits listed above, exercise just makes you look and feel healthier. It can improve your physical appearance, body posture, mental outlook and improve your overall quality of life.

Although I have extensive training in the areas of fitness and exercise, I am not a doctor. If you have any particular concerns or questions about your ability to exercise, then your GUCH consultant may be the best person to answer them. If you have any suggestions for subjects that you would like me to cover in future articles, then please let me know at beth@merlinfitness.com.

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