For this week’s column I’d like to take it back to basics and talk about the body’s most important muscle – the heart.

We talk about doing sit ups to obtain a six pack, or squats for tight buns, but just because we can’t SEE any benefits of strengthening our hearts, it doesn’t mean we should forget about it. Just like any other muscle in our body, if we want it to be strong, we need to exercise it.

Have your finger on the pulse
Why does it need to stay so strong? Because it works exceptionally hard. In fact, the heart beats around 100,000 a day – with a child’s beating even faster. Its job is to pump blood around the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to our cells and organs. The healthier your heart, the fewer beats it needs to make to be effective.

You can check your heart health by counting your pulse, using a heart rate monitor or a fitness tracker. But as well as counting the beats per minute, try checking your pulse immediately after exercise and timing how long it takes to return to your ‘normal’, this will also give you an idea of your fitness level. The quicker you recover, the stronger your heart.

A healthy adult resting heartbeat can range from 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm), while an athlete may have a heartbeat as low as 40bpm. A child’s can fluctuate between around 60bpm during sleep to as high as 220bpm during physical activity!

What becomes of the broken-hearted?
Setting aside time to exercise your heart is also important for preventing the negative impact a sedentary lifestyle can have on our bodies.

Too much inactivity can cause arteries to narrow, effectively stopping the heart from doing its job effectively. This is really bad news. If blood struggles to reach the places we need it to, our organs can really start to suffer.

Being more active can help reduce the risk of developing some heart and circulatory diseases by as much as 35 percent! In addition to strengthening the heart, regular activity also helps your lungs work better, which in turn means they are more effective at getting oxygen into your blood.

It’s really easy to make your heart happy
So, it’s clear WHY we need to make sure our hearts stay active. But how do we go about it?

The good news is you don’t have to do daily push-ups or sign up for a marathon. Any aerobic activity that gets your pulse going and causes you to be a bit out of breath will be effective. There’s so much to choose from! Whether your thing is skateboarding or brisk walking, water aerobics or weightlifting, there’s something out there you, your family, and your hearts, will all love.

And remember, it’s not all about big gestures – taking small steps to break up periods of inactivity will help. If your kids spend a long time on their tablets or watching tv, try and intersperse it up with some active play. Likewise, don’t sit just because you can. Consider standing up while doing some work on your laptop or standing on the bus even if there is a seat available. Every bit helps.

All these things quickly add up. Most of us have seen or heard government guidelines around how much we should ideally exercise a week – it works out, on average, to be about an hour a day for kids and 30 mins a day for adults, varying depending on the type of activity. By breaking up periods of inactivity and then introducing more regular exercise activities into the weekly diary, you’ll be surprised how easily ‘active time’ tots up, all of which is helping your heart get the workout it needs to stay strong.

Balance your diet
Lastly, it’s obviously not all about being active. Another way to protect yours and your children’s hearts is to eat a balanced diet and keep your weight in check – foods which are too high in fat, sugar and salt are likely to contribute towards clogging up of arteries.

A healthy diet that’s low in saturated fats and salts, and high in fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, low fat dairy, fish and nuts will give you the vitamins and sustenance you need while keeping your cholesterol and weight at healthy levels.
Of course, it’s easier said than done when it comes to getting kids to eat a healthy diet. But your hearts will be much happier if you swap crisps and sweets for healthy fruits and nuts at least some of the time.

Your heart will thank you
Heart health is vitally important and should be top of the list when it comes to exercise. Understanding how it works – and how it can go wrong – will help you make the right decisions for your body and ensure your kids will grow up making the right choices too.

So next time you are feeling a little sluggish or a bit lazy, or your kids have sat staring at screens for longer than they should, think about how much your heart does for you and use it as motivation to get going – it will love you for it.