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British Heart Foundation statistics show cardiovascular or circulatory disease remains the UK’s biggest killer, causing over a quarter (27%) of all deaths in the UK each year, the majority of which are due to coronary heart disease and stroke. This adds up to nearly 170,000 people a year, or 460 a day, dying from heart and circulatory diseases. Of these, 44,000 (or 120 a day) are under 75. So, while it’s true that as you get older, your risk of CVD increases, it’s important to start looking after your heart and circulatory health, whatever your age.
The good news is that there are ways you can help protect yourself, for the immediate future and the longer term and one of the best is to increase your physical activity levels.
Lack of activity is one of the biggest causes of poor circulation1, so simply adding some gentle exercise to your daily routine is a good place to start to maintain good circulation.
The Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines for good health recommend adults should aim to be active daily, with at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of intense exercise (or a combination of both), plus two sessions of strength exercises each week.2
According to the latest guidance, meeting the recommended levels of physical activity can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by 35%.3
In this article, Sarah Evans, registered nurse and manager of AXA Health’s Dedicated Heart Nurse service, together with nutritionist Rita Makri and physiologist Jemelle Carpenter-Gayle, look at circulation issues, why exercise helps, and which activities are best when it comes to boosting your circulation and heart health.
Understanding circulation and your cardiovascular system
The circulatory system, otherwise known as your cardiovascular system, plays an important role in the effective functioning of your body. Made up of your heart, blood and blood vessels, it’s how oxygen and nutrients are transported through arteries to the cells in your body and waste products, such as carbon dioxide, are carried away from the cells in your veins.
A major risk factor for many of these diseases is atherosclerosis – furring up of your arteries – caused by fatty substances, such as cholesterol.
“If your arteries become ‘furred up’, your blood supply becomes less efficient. In some cases, it can become completely blocked. The most common cause is atherosclerosis, where ‘plaques’ filled with fatty substances, such as cholesterol, are laid down on the inside of your arteries, like limescale in pipes in your home,” explains Sarah.
Atherosclerosis causes arteries to harden and narrow, which can restrict blood flow and affect the function of key organs. Also, if a plaque ruptures and part of it breaks away, it can cause a potentially fatal blood clot.
Health effects of poor circulation
If you have poor circulation, the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the affected arteries is reduced.
This can result in various symptoms, depending on which part of your body is affected.
If your heart arteries are narrowed, you’re likely to have chest pain, or angina, when you exert yourself. Your risk of a heart attack also increases.
If your leg arteries are affected (peripheral vascular disease or PVD), you’re likely to have pain in your legs when you walk. The pain is usually in your calves, often felt after walking a specific distance. With time it tends to get more severe and can occur when resting.
Peripheral vascular disease can increase your risk of leg ulcers and, in severe cases, toe or foot amputation.
Cold feet can also be a consequence of poor circulation, but there are a number of causes. They include anaemia, diabetes mellitus, underactive thyroid, as well as circulatory problems, so it’s important to get checked out.
If you experience any of the symptoms described above, you should visit your GP for a firm diagnosis and to discuss next steps if appropriate.
How exercise helps boost circulatory health at any age
“Exercise helps circulation as it increases blood flow, gets the heart pumping blood around your body faster and helps flush the blood through your arteries,” explains Physiologist Jemelle. “And it’s never too early or too late to start proactively looking after your cardiovascular health.”
We know that in younger people, regular exercise causes certain changes in the heart, including lowering resting heart rate and increasing the amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat, which make the heart a better pump and can help prevent against heart disease in later life.
Evidence also suggests that people who begin exercise training in later life, for instance in their 60s and 70s, can also experience improved heart function and reduce their risk of a coronary event, like a heart attack. And that the higher the intensity the more the risk is reduced.4 That said, it’s important not to jump straight in at the deep end…
“If you haven’t exercised for a long time, it’s important to build it up gradually to avoid putting your heart under undue stress,” cautions Jamelle. “And if you have conditions such as a history of heart attack, angina or PVD, it’s important to consult your healthcare professional before embarking on a new exercise regime.”