Excess Body Fat & Cardiovascular Disease

By Jill Corleone, RDN, LD

Cardiovascular disease, also referred to as heart disease, is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, taking 1 million lives each year, according to The Heart Foundation. Although heart disease encompasses any illness that affects the heart, such as arrhythmia and heart infections, cardiovascular disease refers to conditions that block or narrow blood vessels, leading to heart attack or stroke. Carrying around excess body fat increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Measuring Body Fat

If you're worried about your health and whether or not you carry around excess body fat, it's important to know how you can measure it. Body fat is measured directly or indirectly. Direct measurements include skinfold measurements, bioelectrical impedance -- both of which require a trained professional for accurate calculations -- and the U.S. Navy fitness formula. Waist circumference and body mass index, or BMI, are indirect measures of body fatness. BMI is commonly used to determine body fatness because it is measured simply using your height and weight. A body mass index greater than 30 indicates obesity.

Excess Body Fat and Cardiovascular Disease

In addition to increasing your risk of obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and certain types of cancer, carrying excess fat increases your risk of hypertension and high cholesterol, both cardiovascular disease precursors. If not controlled, both hypertension and high blood cholesterol levels lead to atherosclerosis, which is the narrowing and hardening of the arteries. In addition, if most of your excess fat is carried around the waist -- known as abdominal fat-- your body is pumping out immune-system chemicals that further increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Losing the Fat

Losing excess body fat significantly reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease. Reaching a healthier body weight improves blood circulation and fluid management. Diet and exercise both play important roles in helping you lose the body fat. When it comes to diet, you need to watch your portions and include heart-healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean protein.

Exercise and Heart Health

Regular exercise not only helps you lose body fat, but it also helps reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and abdominal fat. You don't need to spend hours at the gym to improve heart health. A 2003 review of studies published in "Circulation" noted that a consensus report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine recommended all adults get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as a brisk walk, most days of the week. You even see benefits if you break up your 30 minutes into three 10-minute sessions.

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