Understanding vascular disease

  • Your vascular system is your body’s entire network of blood vessels. This includes the blood vessels in your brain, heart, organs, arms and legs.
  • Vascular disease is a term used to describe if a blood vessel, or network of blood vessels, is damaged or are unable to meet the demands of the body. Vascular disease is also sometimes referred to as artery disease.
  • Vascular, or artery disease, could include any of the following, or a combination of the following: narrowing of an artery, hardening of an artery, leaking or rupturing of an artery, or tightening of an artery. There are several causes for artery disease, including plaque buildup, high blood pressure, uncontrolled blood sugars, smoking, physical inactivity, uncontrolled stress or genetics.
  • Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term used to describe a range of conditions involving the heart and the blood vessels that supply it. Conditions that fall under this umbrella term include: coronary artery disease, heart attack (myocardial infarction), heart failure or cardiomyopathy, heart valve disease, and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).
  • If artery disease occurs in a blood vessel that supplies the heart muscle, heart damage can occur. For some, a reduction in blood flow to the heart muscle may cause chest discomfort (known as angina), shortness of breath, or other related symptoms. If proper blood flow to the heart is not resolved quickly, the heart muscle may be damaged, which is known as a heart attack. The severity of the heart attack will depend on the location of the artery problem, the duration of the time left untreated, and the health and fitness of the heart and vascular network.
  • In some cases, damage to the heart muscle impairs the heart’s ability to meet the demands of the body. This condition is known as heart failure. Some causes of heart failure include a past heart attack, coronary artery disease (damage the arteries of the heart), high blood pressure, smoking, valve condition, diabetes, congenital heart condition, or genetics.. For more information on heart failure, visit our Understanding Heart Failure section.
  • Valve conditions result from a heart valve not opening or closing properly. If the valve does not open or close properly, additional strain is put on the heart and supporting blood vessels to meet the demands of the body.
  • An irregular heartbeat or irregular heart rhythm is known as an arrythmia. There are several different types of arrythmias, including a heartbeat that is too slow, a heartbeat that is too fast, or a heartbeat that is not regular. A common irregular heartbeat is atrial fibrillation. In atrial fibrillation, the top two chambers of the heart do not beat in unison.  For most, atrial fibrillation episodes are short and are treated with common heart medications. If episodes of atrial fibrillation become more frequent or severe, emergency treatment may be advised.

Exercise & vascular health

  • Several factors contribute to the development of vascular disease. These are referred to as risk factors.
  • Risk factors can be divided into two categories: those that you cannot control and those that you can. Those that you cannot control are called non-modifiable risk factors, and include gender, age and genetics. Modifiable risk factors are risk factors we can control, and include: fitness, diet, smoking, alcohol intake, body weight, stress, depression, sleep, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  • The greatest impact on living a longer, healthier life is your fitness. Fitness is developed over time with regular cardio-based exercise and resistance training. The higher your overall fitness, the lower your risk for developing heart and vascular disease. Higher fitness is also linked to lower mortality (death) rates.

How exercise works

  • Exercise stimulates the growth and formation of new blood vessels. Similar to the addition to new side roads in your neighbourhood to reduce traffic congestion,  new blood vessels in your body allow blood to travel to areas where blood flow may be reduced, such as an area of the heart that is impacted by a blockage, or an area of your leg with poor circulation.
  • Exercise widens existing blood vessels. Similar to the widening of a major highway, wider blood vessels allow oxygen-rich blood to travel more easily throughout the body.
  • Exercise can promote plaque regression in the arteries. Plaque that has accumulated on an artery wall reduces the flow of blood throughout the body. Evidence has shown small reductions of plaque can lead to significant improvements in blood flow.
  • Exercise raises good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol. The increase in good cholesterol (HDL) helps prevent cholesterol from being stored in the artery walls. This reduces the likelihood of plaque buildup. Consider exercise as increasing the number and efficiency of city maintenance workers on your roads. Roads are quickly cleaned up, and kept clean to ease the flow of traffic.
  • Exercise improves blood sugar control. High levels of sugar in the blood stream can damage the lining of the blood vessels. When you exercise, your muscles can use blood sugar from the blood stream for fuel, improving blood sugar control. This can improve the health of the arteries by preventing damage to the artery walls.
  • Exercise burns fat-cells for fuel. Fat that is stored in the abdomen has been linked to cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions due to it’s inflammatory properties. Through exercise, fat-cells can be utilized, which can help improve waist circumference and body weight.
  • Exercise improves blood pressure control. With exercise, the blood vessels become more elastic and responsive to the needs of the body. This allows blood pressure to remain at a safe level throughout the day and with bouts of exertion. For those who do not exercise, blood vessels can become stiff and hard, making blood pressure more difficult to control.
  • Exercise also improves almost every system in the body.  Exercise has been linked to improved heart health, brain health, lung health, kidney health, bone health, immunity, digestive health and much, much more.

General exercise guidelines

  • For most people, the goal is to accumulate 150-300 minutes of moderate to vigorous cardio-based exercise per week, in addition to resistance training 2-4 times per week.
  • Cardio-based exercise includes large muscle groups, and causes a sustained increase in your heart rate for at least 10 minutes. Options for cardio-based exercise include: walking, cycling, using the elliptical, rowing, aerobic classes, using aerobic equipment, swimming and aqua fitness classes.
  • Resistance training is designed to improve strength and endurance of the working muscle groups. Options for resistance training include: dumbbells/hand weights, tubing, resistance bands, body weight exercises, and resistance training equipment. 

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