What is the best exercise for the heart?

Your heart is a muscle, and it gets more energetic and healthier if you lead an active life. It’s never too late to start exercising, and you don’t have to be an athlete. Even taking a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day can make a big difference.

Once you get going, you’ll find it pays off. People who don’t exercise are almost twice as likely to get heart disease as active people. Strengthening your heart is one of the best things you can do for your health. And as you know, the best way to improve your heart is to exercise. If you don’t exercise, you’re more than twice as likely to get heart disease as someone who does. If you have a history of heart disease, or just worry about your heart health, you need to develop a regular exercise routine. Experts recommend you spend at least 150 minutes doing moderate exercise per week.

Your heart is the centre of your cardiovascular system. It is involved in many of the daily functions that bring your body to life. So having a healthy heart is vital to your overall health. 

Today is a perfect time to get moving on your fitness goals. Regular exercise does more than help you lose weight and build muscle — although it’s good for those reasons!

Aerobic exercise, also known as “cardio” exercise, uses repetitive contraction of large muscle groups to get your heart beating faster and is the most beneficial type of activity for your cardiovascular system (your heart and blood vessels). 

Some days it seems I answer more questions about sports injuries than I do about heart health. It’s partly because my patients know I’m pretty active (golf, tennis, Pilates…), but also because many people don’t realize that while some activities are suitable for your heart, they can be hard on your body. To me, the key is to find what works well for both.

When considering the benefits of exercising, losing weight and “getting ripped” might be the first things to come to mind. But there’s a benefit that is way more crucial: keeping a healthy heart.

Your heart is the most important muscle in your body, so it deserves some attention too, right? Let’s take a look at some of the best exercises to keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

How to Start Exercising?

First, think about what you’d like to do and how to fit you are.

What sounds like fun? Would you instead work out on your own, with a trainer, or in a class? Do you want to exercise at home or at a gym?

If you want to do something that’s harder than what you can do right now, no problem, you can set a goal and build up to it.

For example, if you want to run, you might start by walking and then add bursts of jogging into your walks. Gradually start running for longer than you walk.

Don’t forget to check in with your doctor. He’ll make sure you’re ready for whatever activity you have in mind and let you know about any limits on what you can do.

Types of Exercise

Walking

Yes, it might seem a little too easy. But walking, especially speed walking, is a great way to strengthen your heart. Walking fast will get your heart rate up and is easier on your joints than other types of exercise. You can walk anywhere at any time. All you need is a pair of supportive shoes. Do a short walk during your lunch break or a longer walk on the weekend. You can listen to music, a podcast, or walk with a friend. The flexibility of walking makes it easy for anyone to do — and to keep doing it.

Weight training

In a sense, this is just another form of interval training. You increase your heart rate during reps and recover between sets. By efficiently handling the demands placed upon them, strong muscles ease the overall burden on the heart. Use free weights, which recruit more muscles, engage your core, and build balance.

Building the other muscles in your body will help your heart. Weight training will help you build muscle mass and burn fat. Although you can hit the gym to train with weights, some of the most effective weight training happens when you use your own body weight. Things like push-ups, squats, or even pull-ups all help you build muscle and contribute to bone and heart health.

“Weight training is critical for people with heart disease,” says Dr. Paul Oh, medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention Program at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. In addition to building muscle mass, which will help you burn fat, weight training is also suitable for bone health and your heart. When it comes to deciding what type of weight training to do, using your own body weight can be extremely useful. “The challenge is incorporating proper progression,” says Fox, who recommends adjusting the tempo of your movements to increase the difficulty. For example, once you can do 20 push-ups with ease, challenge yourself by slowing down and counting to four as you raise yourself up and then again as you lower.

Core workouts

The reason I like Pilates, which strengthens my core muscles and improves flexibility and balance, is that it doesn’t just help me play golf and tennis better, it helps me live better. To exercise vigorously—as well as carry groceries upstairs and weed the garden—you need a solid foundation.

Aerobics

Aerobic exercises, also known as cardio, are designed to raise your heart rate and make you break a sweat. Aerobics help to improve your circulation and lower your blood pressure. If you have diabetes, they can also help you control your blood sugar level.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source recommends that every adult should get at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week, at intervals of 10 minutes or more. Some examples of moderate-intensity aerobics are:

  • going for a brisk walk
  • biking on flat terrain
  • taking a leisurely swim
  • gardening
  • dancing

If you’re big on working out but short on time, you can meet the CDC’s guidelines with one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise. These strenuous workouts are meant to get you breathing hard and increase your heart rate significantly. Examples of vigorous-intensity aerobics include:

  • jogging
  • biking ten mph or faster
  • swimming laps
  • playing soccer
  • hiking uphill

It’s also OK to do a mix of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobics during the week if you prefer. As a rule of thumb, one minute of vigorous-intensity exercise is about equal to two minutes of moderate-intensity aerobics.

Don’t feel pressured to push yourself too hard, though. If you want to meet your weekly aerobics requirements strictly from walking, that’s perfectly fine. Walking is a great low-impact exercise that will give you all of the health benefits of a more intense workout, without overexerting yourself.

Strength training

Strength training (sometimes called resistance training) is another excellent way to improve your heart health. When combined with aerobics, strength training will help to raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. It can also reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Both the CDC and the American Heart Association suggest you participate in strength training exercises at least twice a week (on nonconsecutive days).

Ideally, these strength training sessions should work all of your major muscle groups: arms, legs, hips, chest, shoulders, abs, and back. Although this might sound intimidating, it’s far from the weightlifting and bodybuilding you see on TV. Some examples of strength training exercise include:

  • lifting free weights
  • using resistance bands
  • doing push-ups
  • doing situps
  • doing squats

Strength training exercises should be done in sets. Each set should consist of 8 to 12 repetitions, or until it becomes difficult for you to perform another repetition without help.

Flexibility

Although they may not influence your heart health directly, flexibility and stretching exercises can contribute a lot to your workout. Activities like yoga, tai chi, and Pilates will not only improve your flexibility and balance, but also decrease your chances of getting cramps, joint aches, and muscle pain while working out.

Flexibility exercises make it easier to do other types of physical activities that are necessary for a healthy heart. The great thing about flexibility training is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. Whether it’s warming up before a workout, taking a hot yoga class, or just doing some stretches in your living room, improving your flexibility is always a good idea if you’re serious about heart health.

Lane swimming

Hit the pool for a workout your heart (and lungs!) will love. “Leisure swimming only brings benefits for the extremely unfit population,” says Fox. “Lane swimming will give you a greater return on your exercise time investment.” His recommendation? Progressing from eight to 12 lengths of the pool per swim technique, varying techniques on different days. This could mean doing front crawl and legs only with a flutter board one day and then back crawl and breaststroke another day. One swim technique guaranteed to bring up your fitness level is fist freestyle, which is using closed fists for any swim style, explains Fox. “You have to work harder because you don’t have any swim paddle effect with the open hand.”

Swimming isn’t just for lazy summer afternoons. Taking a water aerobics class or swimming laps can be a full-body workout that will strengthen not only your body but your heart. Unlike other types of exercise, walking is easy on your joints and allows you to move your body without a lot of pain.

Running

A steady run is obviously an excellent way to stay in shape, but running intervals will really push your cardiovascular fitness to the next level. Whether it’s sprints or hills, all you need is 10 seconds at a time. “I recommend keeping the intensity at 10 seconds to ensure you go all out,” says Fox, who suggests starting with four 10-second intervals per workout, eventually working your way up to 10. He also recommends doing the intervals first, so not only do you have the energy to do them, but this type of training will deplete some of the glycogen or carbohydrate stored in the muscle, allowing you to tap into stored fat more readily. Bonus!

Tip: Work hard enough to get out of breath and then take whatever minimal rest period you need to recover, says Fox.

Yoga

You don’t have to be doing a high level of activity to increase your heart health, admits Dr. Oh, who says that pushing your heart rate up and down quickly can be hazardous to those who are out of shape (heart attacks that occur while shovelling snow is an example of this). At first glance, yoga may not seem like a prominent heart health activity, but it is. “Yoga is great for strength and muscle toning,” says Dr. Oh. Plus more active styles of yoga such as Ashtanga and Bikram can offer cardiovascular benefits, as your heart rate is elevated throughout the class.

Although it might not seem like it, yoga is excellent for your heart health. Doing yoga will help you strengthen and tone your muscles. Certain types of yoga can really get your heart rate up, while still providing the calm that will lower your blood pressure.

The calm it provides lowers blood pressure, making blood vessels more elastic and promoting heart health. It also strengthens your core.

Cycling

Regular cycling can substantially reduce your risk for coronary heart disease, according to a large study done by the British Medical Association. The findings revealed that cycling 32 kilometres a week reduced the potential to develop heart disease by a whopping 50 percent. Cycling uses large muscle groups in the legs to elevate your heart rate, which helps to improve not only your cardiovascular fitness but also burns calories and has even been shown to improve mental health.

Jumping on your bike can do more than just get you from one place to another. Cycling has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease. It uses your large muscles in your legs, which helps to elevate your heart rate. Bonus: Cycling has even been shown to improve your mental health.

Whether you choose to hit a yoga class three times a week, go walking with a friend, or swim every morning, regular exercise is essential to taking care of your heart. Always talk to your doctor before you begin an exercise routine.

Tip: No matter what exercise you choose to do, 30 minutes, five days a week is an ideal place to start, says Dr. Oh, who recommends building up to one hour, five days a week.

Interval training 

Which alternates between short bursts of high-intensity exercise with more extended periods of active recovery — is a great way to get a full-sized workout in a short amount of time. For example, you can do it by running for one minute and walking for three minutes, then repeating the cycle. Raising and lowering of your heart rate helps to burn calories and improves the function of your blood vessels.

How much exercise do I need?

If you haven’t been exercising, try to work up to 30 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week. Your doctor may recommend a different exercise regimen based on your health. Alternate exercise days with rest days or days you do a very different type of exercise. This will help prevent injuries.

The heart of the matter

In April 2016, our team completed a two-year, National Institutes of Health-sponsored study looking at how exercise affects participants’ heart health. We studied about 60 middle-aged men and women who had not previously exercised on a regular basis.

Preliminary results of the study suggest that it may be possible to reverse some of the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle if you commit to a heart-healthy exercise routine. We hope to share our full findings soon.

The benefits of a healthy heart for longevity and quality of life are too great to ignore. A regular exercise routine will help you keep your heart healthy for years to come. Jog, swim, golf, hike, play basketball, dance, do yoga — whatever you love to do. The most important thing is to get out there and do it.





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