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Improve your circulation through exercise

Publish date: 16/01/2017

Get out and about to boost your circulation

Are you concerned about your cardiovascular health?

One of the best ways of improving and preventing cardiovascular and circulation problems is to exercise. We look at circulation issues, why exercise helps and the best type.

British Heart Foundation statistics show cardiovascular or circulatory diseases cause over a quarter of all deaths in the UK each year.

In England and Wales, this is an estimated 124,000 deaths and about 39,000 of them are in those aged under 75.

In addition, the cost of treatment, prescriptions and time off work for others affected by cardiovascular problems creates an estimated £19 million burden on the economy.

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. Waste products, such as carbon dioxide, are also carried away from the cells in your veins.

The term cardiovascular disease is used to describe all diseases affecting your circulation or heart. These include heart disease, stroke, angina and heart failure.

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’, it reduces the size of the arteries and makes blood supply less efficient. The most common cause is atherosclerosis, where ‘plaques’ filled with cholesterol are laid down on the inside of your arteries, like limescale in pipes in your home,’ explains GP, Dr Sarah Jarvis.

Atherosclerosis causes arteries to harden and narrow, restricting blood flow and affecting the function of key organs. Also, if a plaque ruptures, 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.

If your heart arteries are narrowed, you’re likely to have chest pain, or angina, when you exert yourself and increase the risk of a heart attack.

But if your leg arteries are affected (peripheral vascular disease or PAD), then you’ll likely have leg pain when walking. The pain is usually in your calves, often after walking a specific distance – with time it gets more severe and can occur when resting.

It can increase risk of leg ulcers and, in severe cases, toe or foot amputation.

Ways to improve circulation

There are ways to improve, prevent or reverse poor circulation and boost cardiovascular health. According to Dr Jarvis, these include:

  • Not smoking.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Taking prescribed medication to help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet – lots of fruits and vegetables and limited saturated (animal) fat.
  • Keeping your weight within healthy limits.
  • If you’re diabetic, keeping blood sugar levels to normal limits.

But one of the best ways is to exercise and become more active.

‘Lack of activity is one of the biggest causes of poor circulation, so simply adding some gentle exercise to your daily routine will ensure you maintain good circulation,’ says personal trainer, Lucy Wyndham-Read.

‘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.’

‘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,’ advises Dr Jarvis. ‘If you have conditions such as a history of heart attack, angina or PAD, it’s very important to consult your healthcare professional first.’

Exercises to improve circulation

‘The best exercise to improve circulation is aerobic exercise – the kind that makes you mildly out of puff,’ advises Dr Jarvis. This includes jogging, swimming, cycling, dancing, rowing, boxing, team sports, aerobic or cardio classes, or brisk walking.

The Department of Health suggests all adults aged 19-64 should be active on a daily basis, aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, in bouts of at least 10 minutes. That’s 30 minutes at least five days a week, which should be achievable for most people.

To get motivated to exercise regularly, try joining a local group – dancing, rambling, football, netball or cycling – so you can exercise with others. Or pair up with friend or colleague as an exercise buddy.

Setting yourself challenges can be motivating. For example, aim to walk every day, or jog for 1km daily for two weeks, or sign up for an organised event that you’ll need to work towards.

Three-minute circulation booster

Exercise needn’t be time-consuming. To get your blood pumping, try this three-minute circulation booster, devised by Lucy.

  • Start marching on the spot for 20 marches. Keep your shoulders pulled back, back straight, stomach muscles pulled in.
  • Continue marching, adding shoulder rolls – lift both shoulders to your ears, then back and forwards, for 20 counts.
  • Finish with 10 alternating knee lifts, bringing each knee up to your opposite elbow.

Finally, remember that if you have an existing circulatory problem speak to your doctor before trying new forms of exercise or increasing activity levels. ‘Very high intensity exercise could reduce the amount the oxygen reaching your heart, or another part of your body, which could be damaging,’ Dr Jarvis comments.

However, ‘Done properly, people with circulation problems have even more to gain from regular exercise than the rest of the population.’ So, no excuses – get active and look after your circulation!

References

British Heart Foundation  

Heart UK

"Poor circulation means the 'furring up' of the arteries - or what is sometimes called atherosclerosis," explains GP, Dr Martin Bell; "this is similar to the furring up of water pipes in your central heating system or washing machine. It's more likely to occur in people with high blood pressure, smokers, diabetics or those with high levels of fats, such as cholesterol, in their blood." 

The health effect of poor circulation

If you have poor circulation in your body, the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the affected arteries is reduced. Depending on which part of your body is affected, you'll have various symptoms.

  • If your heart arteries are narrowed, you're likely to suffer from chest pain or angina when you exert yourself. The risk of a heart attack is also increased.
  • If your leg arteries are affected (a condition called 'peripheral vascular disease'), you're likely to have pain in your legs when you walk. The risk of leg ulcers is increased which, in severe cases, may lead to toe or foot amputation.

Contrary to popular belief, cold feet are not necessarily a sign of poor circulation.

Ways to improve your circulation

There are various ways to improve, prevent or reverse poor circulation, such as:

  • Not smoking
  • Giving up smoking
  • Taking prescribed medication to help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Keeping blood sugar levels to normal limits if you're diabetic
  • But one of the best ways is to exercise.

"Lack of activity is one of the biggest causes of poor circulation, so simply adding some gentle exercise to your daily routine will ensure you maintain good circulation," says personal trainer Lucy Wyndham-Read.
"Exercise helps circulation as it increases your blood flow, gets the heart pumping blood around your body faster and helps flush the blood through your arteries." 

Exercises to improve circulation

Adding gentle exercise, such as walking, swimming or jogging, to your daily routine can help you improve or maintain good circulation.

For those who own a dog, there's no excuse for lack of activity.

"Having a dog is a great way of keeping fit, as dogs need to be walked twice a day," says Lucy; 'it's a bit like having your own personal trainer there to constantly remind you to get outside and go for a brisk stroll."

To add variety to your exercise regime, you could also have a go at running with your dog. CaniX (pronounced CaniCross) is an increasingly popular sport (there's even a British Championship) that involves cross-country running while harnessed to your dog.

Anyone can start off simply running with a dog on a lead and it's suitable for all ages and all types of dog. In fact, it's a great form of free exercise and will keep you both in good shape.

To help you get into a regular exercise habit, setting yourself exercise challenges can be very motivating. For example, it could be to have a walk every day, or jog for 1km for one or two weeks, gradually building up to more.

If you like the idea of running with your dog, there are various CaniX events and runs for dog owners that you could take part in.

Three minute circulation booster

To help get your blood pumping even more, Lucy has devised this super three-minute circulation booster, which can be carried out anywhere.

  • Start by marching on the spot for 20 marches; keep your shoulders pulled back, back straight and stomach muscles pulled in.
  • Continue marching, adding shoulder rolls; simply lift both shoulders up to your ears, then back and forwards, for 20 counts.
  • Finish your routine with 10 alternating knee lifts, bringing each knee up to meet your opposite elbow. 

Exercises to avoid if you have poor circulation

Although exercise can be beneficial for improving poor circulation, some care is needed, especially with regards to sudden vigorous exercise.

"Vigorous exercise should only be considered on the advice of your doctor, since this could result in the heart or part of the body affected not receiving enough oxygen, which could potentially be harmful," advices Dr Bell.

If you have any concerns, speak to your doctor before trying new forms of exercise.

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