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February is American Heart Month, when the a spotlight is turned on heart disease — which is the leading cause of death in the U.S. That's a good reminder for all of us to take a look at our own cardiovascular health. Heart disease is largely preventable, so it's important for all of us to adopt heart-healthy habits that can lower our risk.
Of course, we can't look at how our lifestyle affects our cardiovascular health without considering physical fitness. When you think of heart-healthy exercise, you may think of cardio. That's for good reason, since cardio is intended to increase your heart rate — and therefore exercise that very important muscle.
It's true that cardio activity is important for heart health, but strength training is an important component of a heart-healthy fitness routine that we often overlook. A recent study found that weight training even once a week can reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice a week.
Studies show that doing a combination of cardio and strength training is more effective in improving strength, lean body mass and cardiovascular fitness than performing just cardio exercise alone. Strength training improves blood flow and circulation in the body and helps improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease — like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Plus, building lean muscle mass increases your metabolism, which helps the body burn more calories, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
28-day walking and strength-training plan
That’s why I decided to focus this month’s workout plan on heart-healthy strength-training exercises for all fitness levels. For the next 28 days you will be strength training 3-4 times a week, broken up by walking — or another cardio activity of your choice — on your non-strength days. Aim for 20-30 minutes of the cardio activity of your choice, whether that be walking outdoors or on a treadmill, biking or swimming.
The first two weeks we will focus on mastering form with separate upper and lower body circuits. Halfway through the month, we will up the intensity by combining the moves into one circuit of complex exercises.
Upper body workout
The upper body exercises are designed to strengthen the chest, back, arms and shoulders while also opening up the upper body. To perform these exercises, you’ll need is a set of 5-pound dumbbells. If you want to perform these exercises at an ultra beginner level, simply choose a lighter weight. 2- or 3-pounds will do the trick. Perform 10 repetitions of each exercise, then repeat for a total of 3 rounds.
One-arm overhead press
Standing with your feet as wide as your hips, hold one dumbbell in your right hand. Bring the arm up into a goal-post position with the elbow at a 90-degree angle. Press the weight overhead toward the center so that you can still see it in your peripheral vision. Lower the weight back to the goal-post position. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Hold one weight in each hand with your arms by your sides. Rotate the weights so that your palms face in toward you body. Then, curl the weight up toward the shoulder as if you’re trying to tap the end of the dumbbells onto the shoulders. Keep the elbows hugged in toward your side as you do this movement, and then lower the weights back down to your sides. Repeat 10 times.
Hug a tree
Hold one weight in each hand and bring the arms straight out to the sides. With the arms parallel to the floor, turn the weights so that they are vertical, with your palms facing forward. Relax the shoulders, engage the abs and then bring the weights toward the front of your body as if you are hugging a tree. Touch the weights together at the center, keeping the elbows slightly bent but almost straight. Bring the arms back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Hold one weight in each hand up. Bend the elbows and pull the weights up toward the sky, forming a “W” with the arms. The elbows will be bent out from the ribs, and the forearms will be on a diagonal. Press the weights up and out to fully extend the arms diagonally from the body into a "Y" shape. Bring the weights back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Hold the weights down by the thighs; keep them vertical. Bring the arms up on a diagonal and out as wide and as high as the shoulders. Lower the weights down. Repeat 10 times.
Lower body workout
The lower body exercises work the biggest muscles of the body — the glutes, quads and hamstrings. Strengthening your foundation helps build muscle, burn fat, speed up the metabolism and keep your heart healthy! I’ve provided beginner modifications for each exercise. You’ll be working the same muscles, but with less pressure or impact placed on your joints. Do 10 repetitions of each exercise and then repeat for a total of 3 rounds.
With your feet as wide as your hips, step your right foot back into a lunge. Bend the back knee and lower it almost to the ground. Bend the left knee and make sure the knee doesn’t go past the ankle. Press down through your left heel to bring your right foot back to center. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Modification: Backward leg lift
Standing with your feet as wide as your hips, reach your right foot a couple of feet behind you. Keep the leg straight as you lift the leg up off of the floor to engage your hamstring and glute. Lower the leg down. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Start standing with feet hips-width apart and your back straight. Step your right foot to the right and bend the right knee. Sit the right glute down and back as if you're sitting into a chair. Keep the left leg straight and pull the abs in. Then press down through the right heel to come back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Modification: Side leg lift
Standing with your feet as wide as your hips, reach the right foot out to the right with a straight leg, point the toe. Lift the leg up as high as your hip — if possible — and slowly lower it down. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Step your right foot forward and bend the right knee, making sure the knee tracks over the ankle. Bend the left leg so that the knee reaches toward the floor. Push down through the right heel to press back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Modification: Forward leg lift
Standing with your feet as wide as your hips, point the right leg forward and engage the right quad. Then lift the leg up as high as your hip — if possible — coming into a forward leg lift. Lower the leg and and repeat 10 times. Then switch sides.
Stand with your feet wider than your shoulders and your toes turned out slightly. Reach the arms up into a goal-post position. Bend the knees out toward the sides of the room, lowering the body toward the ground, and keep your back straight. Keep your pelvis tucked under by engaging your core. Ultimately, work to lower down so much that your thighs are parallel with the floor. Then press down through the heels and come back up to standing. Repeat 10 times.
Modification: Mini goddess pose
Perform goddess pose, but only bend your knees half way.
Start in a wide stance with both feet pointed forward and your arms straight out to your sides. Turn your right foot and knee to face the right side of the room. Turn your left foot on a slight diagonal toward the right foot. Bend the right knee so that it tracks over the second toe on the right foot and look over the right fingertips. Keep the left leg straight. Make sure your torso stays centered over the hips. Relax the shoulders, and bend the knee so much so that the right thigh is parallel to the floor. Check to see if you need to scoot the right foot forward to keep the right knee over the right ankle. Hold for a breath, then press the right leg straight. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Modification: Modified Warrior II
Perform Warrior II but keep the stance shorter and do not bend the knee as far.
Upper body + lower body combo workout
In Week 3, we begin to combine the upper body with the lower body to increase the intensity and efficiency of the workout.
One-arm overhead press with backward lunge
Hold the weight in the left hand in a goal-post position. Step back with the left foot into a backward lunge, and then press the left arm up into the overhead press. Repeat this 10 times, and then switch sides.
Hammer curl with side lunge
Hold one weight in each hands as you step to the right into a side lunge. Press down through the foot and come back to center, then perform a hammer curl. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Hug a tree with forward lunge
Holding the weights at shoulder height with slightly bent elbows, step your right foot forward into a forward lunge. Press down through the right heel as you come back to center while performing the hug a tree exercise. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
W with goddess pose
Holding the weights in the starting “W” position, open the legs into goddess pose. As you lower down and bend the knees, extend the arms up toward the sky in a "Y" position. Press down through the heels to stand up as you bring the arms back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
V with Warrior II
Hold the weights at your thighs as you come into Warrior II. As you straighten the front leg from Warrior II, perform the V lift arm exercise. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.