It’s no shocker that exercise is one of the best ways to look and feel your best. Exercise can even reduce your risk of many different types of health conditions, including heart disease.
The good news is that if heart disease runs in your family or your blood pressure was way up at your last doctor’s appointment, getting regular exercise can help you reduce your risk factors for heart disease.
But what type of exercise is best and how much do you need? And how can you make sure you’re exercising safely if you have heart disease or other health conditions? We answer these questions and more.
What does exercise do for your heart?
Simply put, exercise makes your heart stronger and more effective. Like any muscle, the heart gets stronger the more you use it. And when your heart is stronger, it can move more oxygen-rich blood throughout your body, both during exercise and at rest. This increased blow flow contributes to your overall health – it’s even possible to prevent chronic disease with exercise.
Exercise also reduces your risk of heart disease, and it can lower high blood pressure, improve “good” cholesterol and may even reverse heart failure symptoms.
What kind of exercise heart helps your heart work more efficiently? Four types of heart healthy workouts
Pretty much all exercise improves your heart strength and health. But the fastest way to improve cardiovascular health includes a variety of exercises that work your heart, build muscle tone and improve flexibility. Below we share four types of heart healthy exercises and how much you need of each:
1. Cardio for heart health
Exercise target: 5 times weekly for a total of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise or 1.25 hours of vigorous exercise.
Cardio is probably what comes to mind when you think of exercise. Cardio includes those activities that increase your heart rate, makes you breathe faster and gets you sweaty.
So, is cardio worth it? Absolutely! Since your heart is a muscle, the more you work it, the bigger and stronger it gets. And when your heart is stronger, it takes less beats to push blood throughout your body, leading to a lower heart rate. By getting regular cardio exercise you may be able to lower your resting heart rate by as much as 20-30 beats per minute (bpm) – possibly saving your heart millions of beats throughout your lifetime. With all those “saved” heartbeats, your heart can stay stronger, longer – and that means better heart health as you age.
Cardio doesn’t have to be at the gym. It doesn’t require special clothes or equipment. In fact, the easiest way to fit in your cardio might just be slipping into your walking shoes. Here are some examples of good cardio workouts:
For most people, a brisk walk each day is enough to get their heart rate up enough for it to count as a heart-strengthening exercise. Watching your heart rate is the best way to check if your stroll is intense enough to counts as a cardio workout, or you can gauge how your breathing changes with exercise intensity:
- Light exercise – If you can still sing, the walk likely doesn’t count as moderate exercise and may not provide all the heart benefits of exercise. But it’s still more heart-healthy than sitting on the couch.
- Moderate exercise – To achieve a walk that counts as moderate intensity, it helps to walk with a destination in mind, and be in a bit of a hurry to get there. How will you know if your workout is of moderate intensity? Your heart rate should be 50-70% of your heart’s maximum beats per minute (BPM). So, your heart rake for brisk walking, for example, is probably reaching that level if you're breathing harder than usual but can still talk.
- Vigorous exercise – If you’re a little breathless during your walk, it may count as vigorous activity for you. Getting your heart pumping is great, but it’s not healthy to overdo it. So if breathing becomes a challenge, slow down or take a rest.
As you become more fit, it will take more intensity to increase your heart rate. So, don’t leave the treadmill at three miles an hour forever. Stay mindful of how you’re feeling – and continue to push yourself as you become more fit.
Cycling or Spinning
Research shows that riding a bike can reduce your chance of cardiovascular disease while providing a mental boost and other health benefits. Plus, you probably won’t need to go fast for it to count as cardio – most beginners average about 10-12 miles.
Remember that if you’re cycling outdoors, it’s recommended to wear a helmet to prevent a concussion. It’s important to protect your head as well as strengthen your heart.
Swimming is a whole-body exercise that improves strength and flexibility while giving your heart a workout. Plus, it’s one of the biggest calorie burners out there, which makes it great for people trying to lose weight. Swimming is also low impact, so it’s a good activity for people with arthritis or joint pain.
If you’re taking the plunge into swimming for the first time, start slowly with 5-10 minutes of lap swimming at a session and build up from there.
Interval training is a different approach to cardio training, involving continuous transitions between high intensity and moderate intensity workouts of the same activity. Many gym machines have interval training built in, but you can also do interval training on your own. Here’s how:
- Push yourself hard for a set amount of time or distance (a couple minutes or a lap in the pool, for example).
- Continue the exercise at a slow pace for about the same amount of time.
- Alternate between high intensity and low intensity for the rest of your workout.
The advantage of interval training is that it can take less time to fit in the amount of heart-healthy exercise you need. That’s because 20 minutes of interval training typically delivers the health benefits of 30 minutes of moderate exercise.
2. Strength training
Exercise target: 1-2 times weekly, 10+ minutes
While aerobic exercise gets the gold star when it comes to heart health, there is growing data that shows regularly lifting weights can significantly reduce your risk of heart attack or death related to heart disease. One study following 12,591 people found that weekly strength training was associated with a 40-70% decrease in heart disease risk factors – even without cardio exercise. (Still, your heart gets the best protection if you do both cardio and strength training.)
While movements are slow and controlled in weightlifting and resistance training, these activities still give your heart a workout. In fact, strength training can temporarily increase your heart rate and blood pressure levels more than an exercise like jogging.
What’s also great about strength training is that you can get heart health benefits without a huge time commitment. As with cardio training, pay attention to when the exercises start to become easy. In the beginning, it may be tough to get through 5-10 repetitions of a given exercise. But as time goes on, it will get easier. Once you’re breezing through your exercises, it’ll be time to add more weight or reps to help your body – and your heart – get even stronger.
If you go to the gym for cardio, the easiest way to fit in strength training is to tack a few minutes onto your workout for weightlifting. Here are areas to focus on and exercises to try:
- Arms – Chest press, shoulder press, triceps extension and biceps curl
- Back – Lateral pull-down and lower-back extension
- Core – Abdominal crunches
- Legs – Leg press, leg curl and calf raise
If you’re new to weight training, don’t just dive right in. Working with a trainer can help you find the right machines and help make sure you use them correctly.
Strength training at home
It’s possible to strength train at home – and you don’t need a lot of space or equipment. Instead of using machines to provide resistance during exercise, you can use your body weight, handheld weights or resistance bands. Another option is a multi-exercise machine that uses your body weight and gravity to further increase resistance.
Great exercises for at-home strength training include squats, lunges, planks and shoulder press exercises. If you’re not sure the best technique, look for video tutorials on YouTube.
3. Exercises to improve flexibility and balance
Exercise target: every day, before and after other exercise
Stretching and balance exercises can reduce the mind and body stress that can affect your heart in a big way. Plus, flexibility and balance make it possible to do the cardio and strength training exercises that you need for heart health.
Before starting cardio exercise, spend a couple minutes stretching the muscles that you’ll be using. So if you’ll be running, stretch your legs and hips. If you’ll be shooting hoops with your pals, work in some shoulder stretches.
Flexibility and balance are just the beginning of the health benefits that come from including yoga as part of your workout routine. As a go-to activity for whole-body wellness, yoga is also known to:
- Promote relaxation and mindfulness while reducing worry and anxiety.
- Offer low-impact exercises for heart patients to rebuild exercise capacity and quality of life after heart failure.
- Reduce heart disease risk factors, especially in people with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is where you have a cluster of conditions, including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and high cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
- Decrease the frequency of heart rhythm problems in people with atrial fibrillation.
Most types of yoga don’t replace the need for cardio exercise. The exception are cardio yoga classes that provide stretching along with exercises designed to increase your heart rate. The trade-off with cardio yoga is that it may not be as calming or relaxing.
It’s worth finding time for yoga during your weekly exercise schedule, even if it doesn’t count as cardio. Consider adding yoga on the days you’re not doing cardio. Or include a few yoga poses as a warm-up before jumping on a bike, or as part of your cooldown after a run.
4. Movement throughout your day
Target: every day, all day long
While getting up to let out the dog or running down to the mailbox probably doesn’t count as exercise, little moments like these play a big role in keeping your heart healthy.
Research shows that if you don’t move around throughout the day, it can negatively affect your health and increase heart disease risk facts such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity. This holds true, even if you’re consistently clocking in at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.
If you’re deep into writing a work report or binge watching a TV show, it can be easy to forget just how long you’ve been in one place. So, take steps to be more deliberate about how often you move.
Standing at least once an hour
Too much sitting isn’t good for you. If you sit for long periods of time, make it a point to walk around for about five minutes every hour. Some fitness trackers and watches have “stand reminders” built in to let you know when you’ve been sitting for a long period of time. But if you don’t use a device that reminds you, find other ways to stand or move during the day. Stand up during that next video meeting or take the long way to the kitchen to get your morning tea.
Step up daily activities and chores
Tracking steps can help you see if you’re moving enough through the day. We often hear 10,000 steps but some research shows that 7,500 might be enough, especially if some of those steps happen during exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity.
But even if chores such as grocery shopping and running errands don’t get your heart rate up to your target heart rate zone, those steps still matter and contribute to overall health. Overall, the goal is to move more and sit less.
Some chores, like vacuuming and yardwork, can even count as a workout. But it’s important that you’re healthy enough to take them on. In particular, snow shoveling can be bad for your heart, even if you’re in generally good health.
Keeping your heart safe during exercise
Everyone’s heart has limits. How much your heart can handle depends on your age and your health. But there are ways to ensure that you’re exercising at the level that’s best for you.
Understanding your target heart rate zone for exercise
You can use your target heart rate zones to make sure that you’re exercising at a safe intensity while working toward goals like improving heart health or losing weight. Heart rate zones are based on a percent of the maximum heart rate that’s considered safe for someone your age.
Target heart rate zones by age
|Target Heart Range|
(50-70% of max bpm)
(70-85% of max bpm)
|Maximum heart rate|
|20 years||100-140 bpm||140-170 bpm||200 bpm|
|30 years||95-133bpm||133-162 bpm||190 bpm|
|40 years||90-126 bpm||126-153 bpm||180 bpm|
|50 years||85-119 bpm||119-145 bpm||170 bpm|
|60 years||80-112 bpm||112-136 bpm||160 bpm|
|70 years||75-105 bpm||105-128 bpm||150 bpm|
|80 years||65-91 bpm||91-111 bpm||130 bpm|
Calculating your target heart rate zone
- Maximum safe heart range: Typically, your maximum safe heartrate is 220 minus your age. So, if you’re 62 your maximum heart rate would be 158 (220 - 62 = 158).
- Lower end of the target heart range for exercise: This number is usually 50% of your maximum heart range. Following the example above, the bottom of your target heart range would be 79 (158 x 0.5 = 79).
- Top end of the target heart range for exercise: This number is usually 85% of maximum heart range. Following the example above, the bottom of your target heart range would be 134 (158 x 0.85 = 134).
Measuring your heart rate
If you have a wearable fitness tracker, it likely has heart rate tracking built in. But if you don’t have a fitness tracker here’s how you can measure your heart rate using the radial artery in your wrist.
- Place two fingers on your opposite wrist below your thumb.
- Once you feel your pulse, count how many beats you feel in 15 seconds.
- Multiply the number of beats by four to determine your heart rate per minute. So, if you counted 25 beats, your heartrate would be 100 bpm (25 x 4 = 100)
Exercising if you have symptoms of heart disease
It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program. This is especially true if you think you have risk factors or symptoms of heart disease. Your doctor will be able to provide guidance on which exercises are appropriate for you. Some general recommendations may be to:
- Exercise most days each week and keep the intensity manageable. Pick up the pace when you’re ready.
- Start each workout slowly, increase intensity in the middle, and include a cooldown at the end.
- Consider starting with yoga to build up your strength and flexibility before adding in cardio or strength training
Signs you may be overworking your heart
If you’re starting a new exercise program, it’s common to have aches and pain. You may feel breathless, tired or that your heart is racing. Most of the time, taking a rest or reducing the intensity of your exercise may be enough to make the symptoms go away.
If you have symptoms while exercising, write down what they are and what you were doing when they started. If they come and go, make an appointment with your doctor to talk about your symptoms. But if your symptoms don’t go away, seek immediate help, especially if they may be signs of a heart attack.
Know the signs of a heart attack
If you notice any of these warning signs of a heart attack, call 911:
- Chest pain, chest discomfort or chest pressure
- Jaw, neck, arm, shoulder or back pain
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
- Nausea or vomiting
- Extreme fatigue
- Heavy sweating
- Uncomfortable awareness of your heartbeat
- High anxiety
How to tell if you’re getting too much exercise
Some research shows that the benefit of exercise to your heart tops out after you get five hours of vigorous exercise or nine hours of moderate exercise in a week. But most people don’t need to worry about getting too much exercise – only about half of adults meet the minimum requirements of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise weekly.
However, if you’re exercising for a chunk of time every day and notice you’re experiencing more muscle soreness, injuries, fatigue or changes in mood, you may be overexerting yourself due to overtraining or exercise compulsion.
Overexercising can cause serious health problems. Talk to your doctor if you think you might be getting too much exercise, especially if you notice an increase in your resting heart rate.
Take steps toward better heart health
There are enormous benefits of exercise. Simply put, getting regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your heart and the rest of your body. If you have heart health concerns or find you’re having a hard time getting started on an exercise program, talk to your doctor. They’ll be able to provide guidance and inspiration.
Even after you’re exercising regularly, make sure to keep up with your primary care appointments. It can be so rewarding to go in for heart screenings and tests, and hear how your heart disease risk factors have improved because of your hard work.