February 21st, 2012
09:13 AM ET

Small strides you should take for your heart

Let's face it – life is busy. You've got calls to make, e-mails to send and meetings to get to. But what about appointments with yourself that you've been meaning to make?

"As I say to many of my patients, if you don't find time for exercise, you will have to find time for disease," Dr. Nanette Wenger tells CNN.  She's  a spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA) and  a cardiologist at the Emory University School of Medicine.

February is American Heart Month, when the AHA and other organizations hope to spread awareness about the dangers of an unhealthy lifestyle. The statistics haven't changed: Cardiovascular disease is still the leading killer of men and women in the United States and worldwide.

"The key to reducing this threat is prevention, and among the major preventive interventions– smoking cessation, control of cholesterol, control of blood pressure, control of weight and physical activity– physical activity can often be the cornerstone," Wenger said.

"It will help in weight maintenance, blood pressure control and cholesterol control."

You've probably heard this message before, but may find yourself still making excuses for not exercising regularly: Lack of finances, lack of access to a gym, or various other responsibilities that leave you short on time.

But the people who get the most benefit from increased physical activity may surprise you.

"It's not the runner who tells me she's running 20 miles a week and she's gonna start doing 30 miles a week, said Barry Franklin, Ph.D., who is the director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, and an AHA spokesperson.

"It's the sedentary person who starts doing some exercise – even if it's 10, 15, 20 minutes two, three days a week.”

The American Heart Association hopes to help you start walking by identifying free, safe paths across the United States. They have also recognized companies who are "Fit-Friendly" and go above and beyond helping their employees develop healthier workplace environments.

The steps are small, but the results can be huge. Some of these companies have:

– Organized a challenge in the stairwell to get employees to take the stairs
– Organized events like volleyball games and group hikes
– Held meetings with chair exercises at the beginning
– Held on-site farmers markets or cooking demonstrations
– Swapped out regular items in vending machines with healthier options
– Had employees ride a tricycle around a plant instead of an electric or battery-powered golf cart

The AHA also has some tips on what you can do to incorporate more exercise into your day:

– Watch television from the treadmill or bicycle
– Take the stairs instead of the elevator
– Park far away from the building you work in
– If you use public transportation, get off a stop early and walk a little longer to work
– Walk down the hallway while brainstorming with a colleague
– Use the farthest printer on your floor or another
– Use the restroom on another floor and climb the stairs
– Visit a colleague in person rather than e-mail or calling them
– Use a cycle machine under your desk

Taking these steps is important because lack of activity can have dire consequences. 

“Over a period of time, there is good research to say that people who are inactive have up to a 50% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” Franklin said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, like brisk walking, each week for most adults. 

And you don't have to do it all at once. You'll reap the benefits even if you break these 2 1/2 hours of weekly exercise into 10-minute chunks of time - as long as the your workout is at least moderate to vigorous during these small intervals.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.