The human heart beats an estimated 2.5 billion times throughout an average lifetime, pumping millions of gallons of blood to nourish every part of the body. It has a never-ending job pushing fuel in the form of oxygen, hormones, essential nutrients, and other compounds to support our vital bodily functions.
Like any well-oiled machine, a healthy heart needs regular maintenance and care to perform well, and it will start to break down eventually if you don’t take care of it. Lack of exercise, poor diet, certain health conditions, being overweight, and genetics can lead to poor heart health and a higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks, among other serious medical conditions.
In the U.S., heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women of most racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., with a staggering 20.6% of the total deaths in 2020. While this number may be shocking, there are plenty of steps you can take to improve and maintain your heart health. Getting regular exercise is a great place to start. Read on for an overview of the best exercise for heart health.
Benefits of exercise for heart health
Heart disease is brought on by many factors. Some of these factors are health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or genetic conditions. However, most risk factors for heart disease are tied to lifestyle choices, like:
- Lack of regular exercise
- Poor diet
- Tobacco use
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Being overweight
Paired with a nutritious diet, regular physical activity enhances the body’s well-being by improving cognitive function, achieving a healthy weight, strengthening muscles and bones, reducing anxiety and depression, and lessening the risk of disease. When it comes to the heart, exercise is proven to improve cardiovascular health by:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Decreasing risk of developing diabetes
- Maintaining healthy body weight
- Lowering stress hormone (cortisol) levels
- Increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol
- Reducing inflammation all over the body
- Decreasing risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac events like heart attacks
On top of these benefits of exercise for heart health, making a conscious choice to exercise regularly also increases the likelihood of other healthy choices being made throughout the day. For example, with exercise, you’ll find yourself reaching for more nutritious foods and indulging fewer of your vices.
Best exercise for heart health
So, how much exercise is optimal for heart health? And what kind of exercise should you be doing?
While any movement is good for your overall health, aerobic activity — or movement that increases your heart rate — is the best for cardiovascular health. For adults, a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, is recommended. Depending on your initial fitness level, you may need to build up to this duration. For optimal heart health, aim for 300 minutes of moderate exercise weekly. Check out some of our ideas below for inspiration.
Traditional aerobics or “cardio”
Traditional aerobics, also called “cardio,” has a lot of options ranging from lower-impact to higher-impact activities. For lower-impact aerobics, try a brisk walk, cycling under 10 miles an hour, swimming, or using an elliptical or rowing machine. Higher-impact aerobics include activities like running or jumping rope.
Aim to do 30 minutes of cardio 5 to 7 days a week, and always include a warm-up and cool-down period to start and end your workout session.
For those who carry a lot of body fat, resistance training is a great option. It creates leaner muscle mass, reduces fat, increases strength and helps with weight management – something that certainly helps heart health.
Resistance training can involve a lot of equipment, like lifting free weights (dumbbells, hand weights, or barbells), using weight machines, or stretchy resistance bands. You can also do resistance training exercises using just your body weight such as push-ups, squats, sit-ups and many more moves. Resistance training can vary in intensity, so a minimum of two non-consecutive days per week is recommended.
Stretching & flexibility
While our first two examples definitely get your heart pumping, stretching and flexibility workouts provide the foundation for your overall mobility, which indirectly helps heart health.
Flexibility enables freedom of movement in our joints, improves stability and balance, and prevents injury and cramping during more vigorous or high-impact workouts. Flexibility workouts like yoga, pilates and tai-chi give you the best of everything: stretching, balance work, and low-impact, bodyweight resistance training depending on the class. Stretching sessions should always come before or after every workout, but should also be done every day for maximum benefit.
More ways to improve your heart health
Staying active through regular exercise is one of many habits you can form to keep your heart healthy. Here are some additional ways to improve heart health:
- Complement your workout routines with a nutrient-rich diet to fuel all of that movement.
- A balanced diet and exercising will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Let the momentum of these habits build more healthy habits, like avoiding smoking.
- Find ways to manage your stress levels, like practicing mindfulness or spending time connecting with friends and loved ones.
The earlier you take action and the more consistent you are with these steps, the longer your heart will stay healthy. Strong heart health is central to your overall health, keeping not just heart disease at bay, but also other diseases and serious health conditions from diabetes to cancer.