Regular exercise is essential for everyone’s health and well-being. But for people with an increased risk of heart disease — or for anyone already diagnosed with heart disease — physical activity can be a matter of life and death.
“Regular exercise can provide as much as a 50 percent reduction in the risk of developing heart disease, but there is no one best activity,” says Gordon Blackburn, PhD, program director of cardiac rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic. “To optimize the benefits, any activity should be tailored to the individual’s interests and abilities.”
Get Moving to Keep Your Heart Healthy
The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular activity five days a week (a total of 150 minutes) or 25 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity at least three days a week (for a total of 75 minutes).
There are a variety of ways to measure the intensity of your workout (including monitoring your heart rate), but the simplest is a “talk test.” If you can hold a brief conversation while you exercise, you are probably working at a moderate intensity. If you can sing, you are working only at a low intensity and likely not exercising hard enough. (On the other hand, you should not be panting if you are an exercise novice either.)
Experts suggest burning 1,000 calories a week with a wide variety of exercises and activities to relieve stress and protect your heart. “Your benefits increase as the volume of exercise increases to 2,000 [burned] calories per week,” says Blackburn.
Exercise that keeps your heart pumping and vital can come in many different forms. Here are some exercises that experts suggest:
Walking: There are many reasons why walking is the most-often recommended exercise to help lower risk of heart disease. It’s easy, safe and doesn’t require fancy equipment or training. “For most people, it is aerobic and can be done frequently enough and for long enough to reach the 1,000 to 2,000 calories per week window,” says Blackburn. But he cautions that for people who are already fit, walking alone might not be intense enough exercise to reach the threshold for optimum heart health.
Cardio cross-training: You can achieve the same amount of heart benefits by cycling, using the elliptical machine, stair stepping, dancing, swimming or doing aerobics. Even sports such as tennis, soccer, basketball or cross-country skiing could fit into your cross-training routine once or twice a week. Plus, switching between a few different activities helps alleviate exercise boredom and firms up a wider variety of muscles.
Weight lifting: Everyone can benefit from a regular program of strength training that includes at least one set of eight to 12 strength moves that target all of the major muscle groups. For older adults and those at risk of heart attack, maintaining strength can make various activities of daily living — like carrying groceries and lifting a suitcase — less physically taxing.
Active lifestyle: The best way to combat heart disease is to not only exercise but to find ways to make your daily life more active. Get busy in the garden, for instance, skip the cart when you golf or go out dancing instead of out to dinner.
Take the next steps
Before starting a new exercise program, you should consult your doctor, especially if you are at high risk of a heart attack. Your doctor can perform a stress test and other evaluations to make sure your heart is healthy enough to handle whatever workout you’re intending to try. When in doubt, start off slowly and for short periods, taking time to build up to longer, more intense activity over the course of several weeks.
Once you are safely in the groove, enjoy the benefits of exercise. You might start for your heart, but you will gain huge benefits in other areas as well, like losing weight and having more energy.