You probably know that exercise is healthy, but you might not know exactly why. Staying active does more than just improve your physique, and the long-term effects of exercise on the circulatory system can significantly improve your health. Your heart, lungs and blood vessels all benefit from regular workouts.
How the Circulatory System Works
Your circulatory system is comprised of your heart and all the blood vessels in your body, including the lungs. Its role is to deliver oxygen and vital nutrients throughout the body, among other functions. It also removes waste products, such as carbon dioxide, from your system.
The circulatory system can be broken into two parts, one for your lungs and one for the rest of the body. Your lungs are rich capillaries, which are small blood vessels. Blood enters these capillaries and deposits carbon dioxide. At the same time, it picks up oxygen and races back to the heart.
The heart takes that blood and sends it out through the aorta, which is a massive artery. From there, it makes its way around the body.
Your heart is the center of the circulatory system because it pushes blood through the body. It's composed of four chambers. On top, there are two atria, and on the bottom, there are two ventricles.
The atria receive blood from the lungs and the rest of the body through veins. They send that blood down to the ventricles, which send it out to the lungs or the rest of the body.
Exercise improves the circulatory system by making it more efficient. When you work out, your muscles use energy. They consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, which your circulatory system carries in and out of the muscle. Your blood needs to flow faster to keep up with the demands of your muscles, while your heart beats faster to move blood through your body.
Exercise Boosts Heart Function
Your body adapts to the demands of exercise. It gets more efficient at sending blood around your body to the areas that need it most. The long-term effects of exercise on the circulatory system include improved heart function, better circulation and more. These adaptations can enhance your physical performance and make you healthier.
Even though your heart is a muscle, it doesn't respond to exercise in the way that your biceps would. The heart muscle doesn't grow bigger to get stronger, but it stretches more. This is known as stroke volume, and it's one of the ways that your heart adapts to exercise over time. When your heart relaxes, it fills with blood, slowly expanding until it contracts.
When you work out, your heart gets better at relaxing and stretching, which means it can fit more blood in the ventricles per beat. Since it can move more blood per beat, it doesn't need to beat as often and becomes more efficient. Another way your cardiovascular system gets better at moving blood is by relaxing your blood vessels.
Exercise Improves Blood Vessels
Nitric oxide is produced in your body to make your blood vessels relax. When they relax, they open up and let more blood flow through. When you work out, more nitric oxide is released.
Over time, exercise helps maintain healthy blood vessels. As you age, they can become stiff. This happens through years of use, damage and inflammation.
Exercise decreases the stiffness of blood vessels and reduces the damage and inflammation that naturally occurs. In other words, it protects your blood vessels. Over time, inflammation in your blood vessels can lead to atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.
Plaque buildups leave less space for blood to flow and, in some cases, can cause a heart attack or stroke. Exercise actually increases inflammation in your blood vessels for a short period of time, as reported in a May 2012 review in Cardiology Research and Practice. Your body responds by reducing inflammation in your arteries over the long-term. In the end, exercise can reduce inflammation and atherosclerosis.
When you work out, your body adapts by making new blood vessels. These are called capillaries, and they're the smallest kind of blood vessel. They grow out of larger vessels called arteries and veins, which supply blood to the capillaries. Having extra capillaries ensures your muscles get as much blood as they need.
It also helps you stay cool when you work out. One of the ways you cool yourself is through radiation, which means that blood near the surface of your skin radiates heat outside your body to cool itself off. When you have more capillaries near your skin, you can send more blood to the surface to cool off.
Health Benefits of Exercise
The long-term effects of exercise on the circulatory system include a host of health benefits. First of all, it can decrease blood pressure and cholesterol, leading to a lower risk of heart disease. Exercise also keeps your heart healthy by reducing the risk for heart failure, valve problems and irregular heartbeat.
Lowering your heart disease risk is extremely important. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four deaths in the United States is linked to heart disease. It's the leading cause of death among American men and women, and lack of exercise is a risk factor.
One of the best ways to improve your circulatory system is to exercise regularly. The American Heart Association recommends starting with 10 to 15 minutes per workout if you're new to exercise. Eventually, you should work up to at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. You can break this down however you prefer, whether it be short workouts every day or a few longer workouts each week.
Cardio machines and outdoor cardiovascular activities like playing tennis and jogging count as moderate-intensity exercise. These workouts shouldn't be too strenuous or too easy, but somewhere in the middle. Other types of exercise, such as strength training, can improve your circulatory system and heart health too.
The American Heart Association recommends training with weights at least two times per week. During those training sessions, you should try to hit all the major muscles in the upper and lower body. Like endurance training, weightlifting may lower the risk of heart disease and improve cardiovascular health.
- American Heart Association: "Strength and Resistance Training Exercise"
- American Heart Association: "Endurance Exercise (Aerobic)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Heart Disease Facts"
- Medline Plus: "Heart and Vascular Services"
- University of Delaware: "Capillaries"
- Cardiology Research and Practice: "Exercise and the Cardiovascular System"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Atherosclerosis"
- Circulation Research: "Exercise and the Cardiovascular System"
- Comprehensive Physiology: "Cardiovascular Adaptations to Exercise Training"
- The McGill Physiology Lab: "Cardio/CNS Contribution"
- Texas Heart Institute: "Heart Anatomy"
- C.S. Mott Children's Hospital: "Cold Exposure: Ways the Body Loses Heat"