What Are the Best Heart-Healthy Exercises?
Aerobic exercise, strength training and stretching all contribute to better heart and blood vessel function.
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.
When you’re looking for the best exercises to keep your heart healthy, a wide variety of types and trends stares back. You can find everything from low-impact aerobics to high-intensity interval training, kayaking to kettlebells, shadow boxing to rope shaking, and more.
How do you choose the right activity to keep your heart and blood vessels in shape? Don’t worry about the latest trends. The basic components of exercise – aerobic activity, strength training and stretching – are what count most.
Aerobic exercise (also called “cardio”) raises your heart rate and makes you breathe harder. It includes anything that gets you to break a sweat – such as running, brisk walking or even vigorous housework or yard work – and it has a direct effect on heart health.
“It trains the heart to pump a larger volume of blood with each heartbeat. This allows the body to sustain more activity for a longer time,” says Dr. Marshall Brinkley, a cardiologist at the Heart & Vascular Institute at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
In addition, aerobic exercise:
- Lowers your resting heart rate.
- Promotes healthy blood vessels.
- Reduces blood pressure.
- Trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently.
All of those effects make it easier for the heart to do its job.
Aerobic exercise also wards off risk factors that lead to heart disease such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and chronic stress. “Aerobic activity helps lower cholesterol by increasing the liver enzymes that extract ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol from the blood. It decreases diabetes risk by making cells more sensitive to insulin, a hormone that lowers glucose (sugar) in the blood. And it decreases chronic stress by reducing stress hormone levels,” says Dr. Justin Bachmann, a cardiologist and medical director of the Dayani Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
How Much Aerobic Exercise Do You Need?
The 2018 Physical Guidelines for Americans recommends that we all get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking. That amounts to about 22 minutes per day. It doesn’t have to be spread out equally throughout the week though. However you break up the exercise is fine, as long as you hit the 150 minute mark.
And you’ll need to exercise regularly to make a difference in heart health. “The benefits won’t be accrued unless these exercises are done consistently over a period of many months,” Bachmann says. “So find something you can stick with for the long term. You don’t need to be on an exercise bike or in a gym for 150 minutes. You could be gardening or hiking or taking an after-dinner walk. Weave those minutes into recreational activities. That makes it more enjoyable.”
What if you can’t make it to 150 minutes per week? “Studies show that 10 minutes of exercise per day has significant health benefits. Moreover, even replacing one hour of sitting time each day with movement – standing or walking – may lower the risk of death,” Brinkley says. “The key message is to just get moving every day and build from there.”
Strength Training and Stretching
Another type of exercise that helps the heart is strength training. That may give you an image of “pumping iron,” and using barbells is indeed an effective way to improve muscle strength and mass. But there are many other ways to strength train, such as:
- Lifting free weights (dumbbells).
- Using weight-training machines.
- Using resistance bands.
- Doing body weight exercises, such as push-ups, planks or leg lifts.
- Doing yoga or tai chi, which incorporate focused breathing with poses or slow, choreographed movements that strengthen and stretch muscles.
While strength training doesn’t make your heart work as hard as aerobic activity, it does have important heart-healthy benefits. Like aerobic exercise, strength training:
- Burns calories and improves metabolism, which help control weight.
- Improves your uptake of blood sugar.
- Promotes the vascular health of the muscles. “For many muscles, it increases their ability to use oxygen, so the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to supply more blood and oxygen to them,” Bachmann says.
The 2018 Physical Guidelines for Americans recommends that we all strength train two to three times per week, with a day or two off between sessions. Be sure to target the major muscle groups in the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms.
Stretching your muscles has an indirect effect on heart health. It keeps your muscles strong and supple, which is important to avoid injury in a workout or any other activity, so you can stay active.
There are two types of stretching.
- Dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretches are movements that gently put muscles through their range of motion. This warms them up and gets blood flowing to them so they’ll be pliable and won’t tear. For example, you could march in place for a few minutes while making large arm circles. Dynamic stretches are helpful before a workout of any kind.
- Static stretches. Static stretches are positions that you hold for 10 to 30 seconds at a time, once muscles are already warmed up – after dynamic stretching or a workout of any kind. These stretches help the muscles become long and flexible. Examples include touching your toes to stretch your hamstrings or calves. You can even do an entire static stretching routine a few times a week, independent of aerobic exercise or strength training.
“I’m in favor of stretching as part of an exercise like yoga or tai chi,” Bachmann says, “They include meditative effects, which are important for heart health.”
How Can You Get Started?
If you have an underlying health condition or you haven’t exercised in a long time, get a green light from your doctor before you begin an exercise regimen.
Then, start slowly, especially if you’re an older adult. “If you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle, you can probably tolerate 10 to 20 minutes of exercise per day. If you’re weak and deconditioned from a hospital stay, you’ll need to exercise in short intervals of one or two minutes. In both cases, you can increase the amount of time you exercise by a minute per day,” says Nika Jain, a physical therapist at a physical rehabilitation facility and retirement community in Bridgewater, NJ.
How will you know if you’re overdoing it? “Having some soreness after exercise is normal. But if you are getting out of breath and you’re dizzy and can’t breathe well, it’s a sign that it’s too much for you, so you have to slow down. You need the activity to be at a lower level at first to meet your heart and lung demand,” Jain says.
The exercise you choose should not only be one that appeals to you, but also the one that seems right for your abilities. For example, Jain says a water aerobics class is good for people with joint, bone or balance problems. “The buoyancy of the water takes weight away and allows you to move freely, especially if you’re not used to exercising,” she notes.
If you aren’t sure how to strengthen or stretch your muscles, consider working with a physical therapist or a certified personal trainer to get an evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Or try a beginner class on yoga or low-impact aerobics.
Whatever you choose, don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of money or try something out of your comfort zone. “You don’t need gym memberships or expensive equipment. Walking and body weight exercises are free,” Brinkley notes. “And you don’t have to do it alone. There are live and virtual classes for many levels of ability and fitness.”