Exercising is about more than crushing PRs or focusing on aesthetic goals. Most often people start exercising because they know that it’s good for their health. Heart health is one important consideration for long term health maintenance, with research showing that remaining active is an effective way to keep your heart healthy and reduce your chances of developing heart disease. Although any form of exercise that gets you moving helps, there are some exercises that are important to include if you want to focus on strengthening your heart specifically.
From walking to taking a bootcamp class or doing yoga, there are various forms of exercise that keep your heart healthy and functioning at its peak. With the help of cardiologists, we broke down the various exercises you should be doing to keep your heart healthy for years to come. The good part is there is something for everyone — whether you enjoyor workouts on the mellower side.
Why exercise is important for your heart
Exercise in general is beneficial for cardiovascular health. It makes you less likely to develop heart problems as you age, for one. It helps lower your blood pressure, increases your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or good cholesterol, reduces stress and improves your heart’s ability to pump more blood into your muscles by efficiently transferring oxygen out of the blood. It also has indirect benefits.
“Exercise can also help control cardiovascular risk factors such as diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity,” says Dr. Lance LaMotte, interventional cardiologist, Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and owner of TITLE Boxing Club in Baton Rouge, LA.
On the flip side, it’s also important to remain active as you age because inactivity has been linked to a greater chance of developing heart disease. It also increases your chances of a major cardiovascular event. LaMotte says, “Studies have shown a decreased likelihood of heart attack and stroke by maintaining or increasing activity with age.” Besides keeping your heart healthy, LaMotte adds that as you age, exercise can also improve your cognition and memory.
Which exercises are best for your heart?
Any exercise that gets your heart rate up is beneficial for your heart health, says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventative cardiologist and a member of Peloton’s Health & Wellness Advisory Council: “I’ve always said that exercise is the best medication and prevention for heart disease and for living a healthier and happier life.” LaMotte adds that “almost any form of regular exercise can provide tremendous cardiovascular benefits, be it traditional cardio such as walking, running, biking, swimming, high-intensity interval training, resistance training, or full-body workouts, such as boxing.”
Although all exercise provides heart health benefits, there are some workouts that are stand out as ideal to keep your heart going strong. Here’s a breakdown of five of the top exercises for heart health. These exercises get your heart pumping and offer a variety of options to prevent overuse injuries and work different muscles.
A good rule of thumb to follow with interval training is to keep the exercises short and intense followed by a rest period of the same length or shorter in between. Interval training is a good option when you’re short on time and want to break a quick sweat. Studies even suggest that HIIT-style or high intensity interval training workouts improve both your lung and heart health, as well as your heart’s response to exercise. Additionally, there are workout apps and programs you can download that focus on this type of training if you’re not sure where to begin.
Weightlifting may be slower paced, but it is also a good way to get your heart rate up and improve your heart’s strength. One study found that lifting weights can reduce your chances of having a stroke or heart attack by about 40 to 70 percent. Depending on your goals, it’s helpful to connect with a personal trainer who can teach you proper techniques and set up a customized workout program for you.
Walking is just as beneficial as getting a run in, but is gentler on the body. It’s easy to do anywhere and you can gain even more benefits by picking up the pace. “Walking is a low intensity workout that’s proven to benefit your heart, especially when walking at a brisk pace and pumping your arms,” says Steinbaum. Research suggests that brisk walking can further improve your cardiovascular health compared to walking slowly. Other ways to make your walks more challenging are by walking with some weights in hand, adding a half mile every time you go for a stroll, or adding bodyweight exercises every so often.
Yoga is known to lower blood pressure, improve your flexibility and balance and help reduce any aches and pains. Yoga can be done in the comfort of your own home — all you need is a yoga mat and a small space to move.
Swimming is a low impact, full body workout that is gentle on the joints, but still packs some cardio punch. Swimming keeps your lungs and heart strong and even helps lower your blood pressure. It’s a great aerobic option if you’re also recovering from an injury or if your body doesn’t respond well to high-impact exercises.
Where should you begin?
Before you take on any new exercise program, it’s important to discuss it with your doctor, especially if you have had any prior health issues, or if heart issues run in your family. LaMotte says that “if cardiovascular risk factors are present, it is advisable to have a physician’s clearance prior.” Steinbaum agrees and says, “Checking your blood pressure, cholesterol panel, hemoglobin A1C (sugars) and inflammatory markers, among other indicators, are vital sources of information to help determine risk levels for higher intensity workouts.” However, if you’re a generally healthy individual, use your best judgment when taking on a new workout and stay within your limits.
If you’re just getting started on your workout journey, it’s important to make sure you don’t do too much too soon. LaMotte recommends that you start slowly to establish consistency and set reasonable goals. For example, if you’re just taking up running, it’s best to focus on completing a set distance at a comfortable pace, rather than upping the intensity and tackling the distance at the same time.
A good rule of thumb is to follow the recommendations of the American Heart Association. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both per week. Along with this, you should include resistance training at least two days per week. “Studies have shown that activities that get your heart rate into the moderate intensity heart rate zone is the best option for optimum cardiovascular benefit,” advises Steinbaum.
The best way to do this is to explore and find an activity that you enjoy and know you’ll be consistent with. Some people may find it helpful to have a workout buddy or a small group of friends who can hold them accountable. “It is also important to be tuned in to body feedback to decrease injury,” warns LaMotte, adding that hydration and rest days are also important to minimize the risk of injury and fatigue.
Additionally, it is important to balance heart healthy exercise with a healthy diet. “I always tell my patients that they can’t out-exercise a poor diet,” advises LaMotte. “A diet low in saturated fat, refined sugars and sodium can help control or reduce blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.”
If you have a family history of heart disease, it’s important to start getting your numbers checked by age 20 for blood pressure, cholesterol and sugars. “If a woman has a history of complications during pregnancy such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or high blood pressure, she should have her heart checked,” says Steinbaum. For other individuals, she says “knowing your numbers” and having a yearly wellness visit is part of leading a heart healthy life.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.