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A Guide to Heart-Healthy Exercise

Exercise has so many health benefits, but many people are not doing it. When you exercise, your heart rate increases, delivering oxygen and nutrients to your hard-working muscles. As you increase the intensity of your workout, your heart responds by increasing heart rate and contractility.

As you repeat your exercise sessions regularly, your heart gets stronger and more efficient, as do your respiratory muscles. You are able to swim, row, run, walk, or bike faster and further than you ever have in the past, with less effort.

But it takes time to get to this point, and many people find exercise uncomfortable and time-consuming. Choose physical activities that you enjoy and amp up the effort a little more as you do them. For example, instead of slowly walking around the block with your children or pets, pick up the pace or choose a route with hills. Investing in your heart health will pay off with better cardiovascular and respiratory function, improved oxygen and nutrient flow throughout the body, lower blood pressure, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, and a reduced risk for heart disease.

What Is the Best Type of Exercise for Heart Health?

The best type of exercise for heart health is the one you will consistently do. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim to meet the following exercise goals each week:

  • A minimum of at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, or a minimum of 75 minutes to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week, or a combination of both
  • Two muscle-strengthening sessions each week that are of moderate or greater intensity and that exercise all major muscle groups

Moderate intensity: brisk walking (2.4-4.0 miles per hour), bicycling (5-9 miles per hour), active yoga, dancing, vacuuming, recreational swimming, gardening, and raking leaves.

Vigorous intensity: jogging, running, hiking, swimming laps, jumping rope, aerobics, bicycling (≥10 miles per hour), weightlifting, stair climbing, shoveling snow.

Instead of choosing one exercise, alternate between many different types of exercise so you don’t get bored. Any movement that increases your heart rate is an excellent choice for improving heart health.

A woman exercising

Examples of Exercises That Are Good for Heart Health

A wide range of exercises qualify as heart-healthy. Here is a list of some examples:

Aerobic exercises: improve cardiovascular fitness.

  • Walking
  • Jogging or running
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Dancing
  • Aerobic classes
  • Jump rope
  • Hiking

Strength training: Increases muscle and heart strength.  

  • Weightlifting
  • Resistance band exercises
  • Bodyweight exercises
  • Strength Yoga
  • Pilates
  • CrossFit

Flexibility and stretching

  • Pilates
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi

Household chores, yard work, and gardening can also provide an excellent physical workout!

How To Build Heart-Healthy Exercising Habits

One of the most challenging parts of exercise is getting started. Most people know that exercise is good for them, and a sedentary lifestyle increases their risk of heart disease, but they just find it hard to squeeze exercise time into their day. Before starting an exercise program or increasing exercise intensity, consult with a doctor if you have any medical conditions or health concerns that may limit your ability to exercise.

Here are some tips for making heart-healthy exercise a part of your regular routine:

  • Choose exercises that you are comfortable doing.
  • Start slow and keep the intensity low enough that you can keep a conversation going.
  • Alternate exercises so you do not get bored and to avoid overuse injuries.
  • Remove as many obstacles to exercise as possible. For example, lay out clothing ahead of time.
  • Set clear exercise goals and track your progress toward those goals.
  • Use podcasts and music to distract yourself while exercising.
  • Warm up and cool down before and after exercise to reduce your risk of injuries.
  • Stay hydrated during and after exercise.
  • Consume a nutritious diet to fuel your body for exercise.
  • Get plenty of high-quality sleep.
  • Use technology or wearable devices to monitor your progress.
  • Listen to your body when choosing exercise types and intensities.
A heart mold with healthy food in it.

Other Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Heart Health

In addition to exercise, other lifestyle changes that can improve your heart health include:

  • Manage stress: Unmanaged or chronic stress affects your heart health by increasing heart rate and contractility, which puts added pressure on heart muscle. Use breathing techniques, meditation, or yoga to manage stress. Schedule time for relaxing and engaging in your favorite activities and hobbies.
  • Reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol: Good (HDL) cholesterol can reduce your risk of heart disease, but increased LDL cholesterol can increase your risk. Learn more about the difference between good and bad cholesterol.
  • Lose excess weight: There is a strong correlation between obesity and heart disease, as they share many of the same risk factors.
  • Check your blood pressure: High blood pressure rarely has symptoms, which makes it even more important to monitor your blood pressure regularly and identify hypertension early.
  • Quit smoking: The hundreds of chemicals in cigarette smoke increase your risk for heart and lung disease.
  • Consume a heart-healthy diet: Consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins and low in saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars.
  • Limit alcohol use: Excessive alcohol consumption increases your risk of heart disease.

It is much easier to make lifestyle changes now before you develop any heart disease. Some people wait for a serious heart event, like a cardiac arrest or a heart attack, before they start taking their heart health seriously.

When Medications May Be Necessary

Sometimes, lifestyle changes are not enough to prevent or treat heart disease. In this case, your doctor may prescribe medications. Commonly prescribed medications used to treat heart disease include:

  • ACE inhibitors (Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors): lower blood pressure and improve heart function
  • Antiarrhythmics: reduce the risk of arrhythmias
  • Antiplatelet agents: minimize blood clot risk
  • ARBs (Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers): dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure
  • Beta-blockers: slow heart rate and reduce blood pressure
  • Calcium channel blockers: decrease the workload on the heart
  • Digitalis medications: reduce the risk of arrhythmias
  • Diuretics: remove excess water and salt from the body
  • Nitrates: Improve blood flow to the heart
  • Statins: lower cholesterol

Telemedicine platforms, such as TelegraMD, provide a convenient option for contacting a doctor, receiving an online medical diagnosis, and, if necessary, an online prescription. Telemedicine platforms have doctors on call that provide 24-hour access, and online doctor’s visits are very cost-effective, even if you do not have insurance.

When Surgical Intervention May Be Necessary

In some rare cases, surgical interventions may be necessary to treat heart disease. Examples of these surgical interventions include:

  • Aneurysm repair: Surgically support a weakened section of an artery
  • Angioplasty: minimally invasive procedure used to open blocked coronary arteries
  • Coronary artery bypass grafting: Used to bypass blocked coronary arteries
  • Defibrillators: Surgically implanted devices used to restore normal heart rhythms
  • Heart transplant: replace a severely damaged heart with a donor heart
  • Heart valve surgery: repair or replace damaged heart valves
  • Left ventricular assist device: an implantable device that assists the heart in pumping blood

Disclaimer

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.

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