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February Is National Heart Month

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WOMAN EXCERCISING
Natalie Young via Getty Images
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With February being 'National Heart Month,' let's hone in on what you can do to keep your muscles toned -- including the most important muscle of all, your heart. If just the word exercise makes you feel like you want to lie down, don't worry. There are ways to get going gently with regular activity to avert the blues, boost your alertness and keep your heart healthy.

The connection between muscle (including your heart) and brain becomes even more critical during menopause than it has been in your entire life. Study after study shows that mature adults who are active not only live longer, with lower incidence of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, but they also report greater satisfaction with life and less depression. If exercise were a pill or a potion, it would be hawked as a powerful health solution, but it doesn't have to cost a cent. It provides longevity, a brighter mood, more restful sleep and possibly even a revved-up sex drive. Regular activity today reduces your likelihood of a heart attack in the future. With claims like these, we'd probably all rush out to get whatever it was that could deliver these robust benefits. It's always available, yet many of us let boredom or inertia get in the way of exercising, or we claim that we can't find the time.

Which statement most closely reflects how you feel about exercise?

• I exercise only sporadically. I'll stick with an exercise program for a while, but then I slack off.
• Exercise is a burden and a bore, and I hardly ever do it.
• I spend time thinking that I should exercise and then feel guilty because I don't.
• I force myself to exercise, but I don't enjoy it and I spend the entire time wanting it to be over.
• I've been doing the same kind of exercise for a long time, and I am bored with it now, but I don't feel motivated to make a change.

You probably know all of this, but just in case you need a bit of a refresher, there are several reasons (including heart health) why you'll want to make regular exercise part of your routine, as essential as eating, sleeping, drinking water and bathing.

Although we tend to worry more about breast cancer than other diseases, heart disease causes more deaths in women every year than breast, ovarian and lung cancer combined. One in four women dies from heart disease, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Estrogen has a protective effect on the heart, and the loss of this effect ups the risk for heart disease. Exercise offers a simple and achievable way to help counteract this risk. In a study of 27,000 women who took part in the Women's Health Study, researchers analyzed heart disease risk factors and exercise levels. They found a 40 percent reduction in heart attack and stroke between the highest and lowest exercise groups. The highest exercise group took part in five or more hours of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking per week. The lowest exercise group had less than one hour of physical activity per week.

Exercise also helps you slim your hips and build up your hippocampus. It builds more muscle, which burns more calories than fat. Even moderate exercise boosts your metabolism, helps your clothes fit better, spikes your energy and alertness, and helps ward off bouts of teariness or anxiety. Another exercise bonus: It increases the size of your hippocampus, the brain structure that is essential to memory formation.

Exercise means better rest. If you're exercising at night in bed by tossing and turning, try moving around more during the day to smooth out your sleep patterns. As part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers analyzed a representative sample of more than 2,600 adults of all ages. Just over 20 minutes of exercise, or 150 minutes a week, was associated with a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality and less daytime sleepiness. Maybe you're caught in that nasty cycle of feeling too fatigued to exercise because you sleep so poorly at night. Today is the day you can begin to reverse that trend, even if you start with just ten minutes of walking.

Your brain rewards you for your exercise efforts, big and small, by releasing endorphins, the body's natural pain relievers. The endorphin payoff also includes a feel-good sensation, appetite modulation, release of sex hormones and a boost in your immune response. Even light activity/ exercise, helps. In a population study of more than forty thousand people, Norwegian researchers found that light activity -- defined as any activity not leading to being sweaty or out of breath -- was associated with significantly fewer depressive symptoms. Lots of women really like the part about not getting sweaty. Try a 10-minute morning walk. You'll up your heart rate and metabolism, increase your blood flow and energy and feel more positive and alert.

A few more ideas; enlist a friend, sister, cousin, coworker, or neighbor to take a regular walk, and make a standing date. Knowing that someone is counting on you makes it harder to put off exercising. And don't forget about the support you can get from a nonhuman exercise buddy. If you have a dog, add an extra walk -- your pet will love you for it. No dog and don't want to adopt one? You may have neighbors who wouldn't mind at all if you took their pup for an extra stroll.

Dancing is a terrific exercise! If you're not a natural exerciser (I'm not!), try this: Put on just one fast song that you love and dance to it in the privacy of your home. You'll bump your heart rate and give yourself the awareness, for just a moment, of how good it can feel. It may just prompt you to do it again.

You'll do your body (including your heart) and your spirit a favor when you try some of these ideas on staying active. Keep an open mind and remember that you don't have to sign on to any activity forever. Try one activity for a week and see how you like it. Reward your exercise effort at least once a month with a small bouquet of flowers, a new book, a movie, a pedicure -- something that reinforces the good feelings you get from exercise. Experiment, have fun, seek company and I'll guarantee you'll like the way you look and feel. And, most importantly, your heart will benefit too!