How Exercise Benefits Heart Health
Numerous reasons make regular exercise and general physical activity critical for your heart, the main one being that it reduces the workload on your heart.
“With regular exercise, your muscles improve their ability to use oxygen in the blood so your heart doesn’t have to pump as much blood,” says Danine Fruge, M.D., ABFP, medical director at Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami. This in turn lowers heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, your heart won’t have to work as hard to maintain its beat. For most people, that’s between 60 and 100 beats per minute, and the lower, the better, according to the American Heart Association.
That’s only the start. Exercise also lowers stress hormones that can harm your heart, improves your blood sugar, gives you a better sense of well-being, and decreases excess body fat and harmful inflammation in the body, Dr. Fruge says. All of these benefits play a valuable role in helping to reduce your risk of heart disease and maintain normal functioning.
The Best Types of Exercise for Heart Health
So what type of exercise is best? Truth is, all physical activity counts toward boosting heart health, and according to Dr. Fruge, “the best [workout] is the one you enjoy doing the most.” After all, if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’ll let it go—and then your heart can’t reap the benefits it needs.
If you’re really looking to optimize your workouts for better cardiovascular health, here are a few activities that research has found especially effective in that department. Here are four great types of exercise for a strong, healthy heart—and you might already be doing some of them!
There may be no friendlier exercise for the heart than walking, simply because it’s convenient, low-impact, easy to do with friends, equipment-free, and literally free. All you need is a supportive pair of walking shoes and a safe place to walk (indoors or outdoors). Plus, if you want to prevent heart disease, you don’t have to devote much time to walking. Just seven minutes of brisk walking was enough to cut heart disease risk, according to one study in the European Heart Journal. Even going for a light stroll for five minutes after each meal can help lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and stress hormones, Dr. Fruge says.
And the more you move, the better. The American Heart Association recommends doing 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous, aerobic activity (or a combination of the two) every week. Of course, “this level may be impossible for some people, especially the elderly, notes Majid Basit, M.D., cardiologist at Memorial Hermann in Houston. Instead, start where you can and aim to increase what you’re doing gradually, no matter what it amounts to. It’s all relative and different for everyone.
If you have yet to hit the mat, it might motivate you to know that yoga offers some surprising cardiovascular benefits—surprising because you might not think of it as a particularly heart-pumping mode of exercise. But that’s not quite the case.
“Yoga has been shown to lower blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and heart rate,” says Dr. Basit, pointing to a study in the International Journal of Yoga that demonstrates the heart benefits of yoga. A more recent study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that among individuals with high blood pressure who did 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times, 15 minutes of yoga was more effective in lowering blood pressure and heart rate than stretching. Yoga also improved their 10-year cardiovascular risk.
Plus, yoga can reduce stress hormones, prevent emotional eating and excessive drinking, and improve sleep, Dr. Fruge adds, all of which can contribute to heart disease if left unchecked.
Not sure if you're ready to invest in an in-person class or private session? Here are some easy ways try out the wide world of yoga for free.
The most common form of high-intensity exercise is interval training, which involves alternating between periods of hard, heart-pumping work and recovery. For instance, you might do 30 seconds of intense movement (think: jumping jacks, fast and heavy cycling, sprints, jumping rope), followed by one or two minutes of rest/recovery (marching in place, slow walking, active stretching, light cycling). Then repeat for the remainder of the workout.
While it might seem daunting, exercising with intervals is extremely heart-friendly, namely because this type of training increases the production of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. “That lowers cholesterol and increases insulin sensitivity, which regulates blood sugar and body fat better,” Dr. Fruge says.
The benefits don’t stop there though. “High-intensity training helps muscles grow and the heart become stronger,” Dr. Basit says. Of course, not everybody can tolerate high-intensity exercise, so Dr. Basit recommends exercising to a level of fitness that’s appropriate for you.
To gauge how hard you should be working, use what experts call the rating of perceived exertion, which uses a scale that goes from zero to 10. Zero is how you feel when you’re doing nothing; 10 means you’re going all-out. During the “on” or hard work periods of intervals, you should be somewhere between seven and 10; during recovery periods remain around level three or four, according to the American Council on Exercise. (Remember your 10 is not the same as your spouse’s 10 or an Olympic athlete’s 10.)
Don’t overdo it—more is not always better when it comes to high-intensity exercise. It’s great to incorporate into your exercise routine, but not necessary to do every single day. Aim to do interval training about two times a week, on non-consecutive days, Dr. Fruge recommends.
While aerobic exercise gets the spotlight when it comes to improving heart health, don’t overlook strength training, like lifting weights and resistance training. The American Heart Association recommends doing muscle-strengthening activity at least two days every week. Not only does it build and maintain muscle mass, which can decrease with age, lifting weights can also reduce your risk for heart attack or stroke. According to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, individuals who did less than one hour a week of strength training reduced their risk for a heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70 percent.
A 2022 systemic review and meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that doing 30 to 60 minutes of weight-lifting or other strength-building activities per week (without any cardio exercise) was positively associated with a 10 to 17 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality and noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease. That number jumped to an impressive 40 percent lower risk when strength training was combined with aerobic activity.