How much exercise do you need to feel your best and prevent heart and cardiovascular disease? It's likely less than you think but frequency is key.

"Exercise is my specialty," said Joseph Paluck, M.S., an exercise physiologist with St. Luke's and Jim Thorpe Physical Therapy during a recent talk at the Pyramid Sports Performance Center in Lehighton. "My passion is heart disease, and trying to stop this disease as much as we can."

Paluck began by explaining that exercise can train the body to use oxygen more efficiently and create important changes to the body that can reduce your risk of heart disease and other diseases.

It can take several minutes for the body to "catch up" on its oxygen needs when performing a short burst of movement like sprinting, which is why we tend to breathe deeply after sprinting. During longer, steady workouts such as jogging or a brisk walk, the body is actively consuming more oxygen throughout the workout.

"That's why warm-ups are so important," he said. "It takes seven-10 minutes for the body to move oxygen from your lungs to your arms and legs."

He noted that as a person exercises more often and becomes more fit, it takes less time to move the oxygen needed for exercise to the limbs. The body creates more red blood cells to carry oxygen, and circulation improves.

These improvements to circulation are why exercise helps your body.

"Your heart starts pounding harder. It pushes blood into your carotid arteries. Your brain sends a message to your arteries to dilate and relax, to allow the blood through more efficiently," he said.

"As we get older, your arteries lose this ability to relax. Exercise can contradict that," he said, nothing that what doctors call a "hardening" of the arteries is really just a loss of this function.

To accommodate the increased blood flow, the body also creates more capillaries, or small blood vessels.

The result? Lower blood pressure, because there is physically more room for blood to flow. There are also more ways for your body to compensate for health problems such as a blood clot, because blood can work "around" clots and take alternative routes.

Paluck noted that it's important to do different types of exercise. Add in weight lifting if you enjoy long walks. If you're a gym member, don't spend all of your time on the same machine switch from the treadmill to the rowing machine, or add a few minutes on the stationary bike.

To see these positive changes, Paluck recommended exercising three to five times per week for about 30 minutes or more.

"Frequency is a big thing," he said. "A little bit of exercise, more often, is better than nothing. Every day, you should try to not make your day passive."

He noted that a workout of 30-40 minutes should include about seven-10 minutes of warming up. For beginning exercisers, it's acceptable to divide a half-hour workout into shorter activities throughout the day. Doing just six-eight minutes of movement at a time is often enough to start seeing benefits.

"You want to look at your total cumulative time and distance," said Paluck, adding that it doesn't matter how quickly you walk or run a mile.

Covering a distance burns the same number of calories no matter how quickly you move, which means that even walkers can see health benefits.

He advocates using a "perceived exertion" scale to judge the intensity of each workout and your body's reaction to exercise. Measure the difficulty of both warm-ups and exercise from extremely light effort to extremely difficult; warm-ups should be very light to light intensity, and workouts should be from light to somewhat hard intensity.

"You don't need to have an extremely difficult workout for it to count," said Paluck. "You shouldn't be in pain in the gym. I don't live by 'no pain, no gain.'"

He ended the talk by noting that your heart is only as healthy as you treat it.

"Exercise should be like brushing your teeth. Don't make excuses it's like making an excuse not to brush your teeth."