Whether you walk around the block or swim 20 laps each morning, there are lots of good reasons to exercise. It helps you feel energized and lessens your stress, but it’s your heart that reaps the most benefits when you get moving.
According to the American Heart Association, it’s recommended that you achieve at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. Doing so not only improves how blood moves throughout your body, lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduces your risk of Type 2 diabetes, but it can also decrease your risk of heart disease.
Cardiac rehabilitation expert Erik Van Iterson, PhD, MS, talks about why exercise matters for your heart health, ways to get in your exercise and why you should pay attention to your heart rate.
Why exercise matters for heart health
Exercising can strengthen your heart and lead to improved cardiorespiratory fitness.
“Scientific data has consistently shown that aerobic or cardio style exercise improves not just the circulation within your heart, but the circulation throughout your entire cardiovascular system,” says Dr. Van Iterson. “That generally means the ability to circulate blood in an effective and efficient way and typically leads to reductions in cardiovascular risk.”
Dr. Van Iterson points out that exercising to improve your heart health applies to any individual regardless of age, gender, background or socioeconomic status.
“Exercise is the simplest form of medicine,” he says. “It’s something you can control and you can take into your own hands.”
Types of exercises to try
Doing aerobic or cardio exercise is the best way to improve your heart health.
“The biggest thing that gets overlooked is that you can keep it simple,” says Dr. Van Iterson. “It’s really thinking about what we consider cardio or aerobic exercise like walking. For others, it can be running or jogging. It all depends on where you’re at in your life and identifying realistic goals, what recent background you have with exercising and if you have any risk factors like a family history of heart disease.”
Also, remember, you can break up those minutes into many small segments spread throughout the week or aim for 30 minutes five days a week. You won’t always have 30- to 40-minute blocks to dedicate to your exercise, but don’t let that discourage you from exercising. Even if you can get 10 minutes in a day, it’s worth it.
“Exercise on a routine basis is something that’s important when people are trying to get to 150 minutes,” says Dr. Van Iterson. “It’s more than just getting to that magical mark.”
Here are a few examples of exercise that benefits your heart health:
- Brisk walking.
- Jogging or running.
- Climbing stairs.
- Cross-country skiing.
“All these types of activities involve a more controlled and sustainable type of exercise,” says Dr. Van Iterson. “And that’s what’s going to typically yield the strongest cardiovascular benefits.”
Why your heart rate matters
You may have a fitness tracker that calculates your heart rate. But what does it mean exactly? Your heart rate is the number of times each minute that your heart beats, which is normally between 60 and 100 times per minute while sitting or lying down for adults.
Keeping track of your heart rate when you exercise can help you monitor how much physical stress you’re experiencing and know if you’re working out in a way that benefits you and your body the most.
“Heart rate is useful because it’s a marker of intensity,” says Dr. Van Iterson. “There’s this balance between exercising enough in order to achieve the cardiorespiratory benefits of exercise and avoiding exercising too much or being too intense with it.”
Having that data, which includes figuring out your target heart rate zone, will help you exercise more effectively on a consistent basis and have a better chance of achieving and maintaining your desired results.
“Oftentimes, it’s really difficult for individuals to really know what that threshold or cut-off is just based on how you feel,” notes Dr. Van Iterson. “So when you have additional markers to refer to such as a target heart rate zone then it provides you with more information on how hard you’re actually exercising.”
Exercising after a heart attack
If you’ve had a heart attack, should you be exercising?
In short, yes. It’s important to get moving as soon as you can after a heart attack. While it can help boost your energy and is important for the heart healing process, you should take it slow at first. Consult with your doctor about enrolling in cardiac rehabilitation, where you can exercise under the supervision of medical professionals while also learning about how to maintain a safe and effective exercise plan long term.
“We do a full evaluation of your current risk factors, including the possibility of an exercise-induced heart event, and then provide patients with an individualized exercise prescription,” explains Dr. Van Iterson. “That way you can better maximize benefits gained while minimizing risks.”
Overall, making exercise a priority whether you’ve had a heart attack or not tends to lead to other healthy lifestyle choices like heart healthy eating habits, managing your weight, minimizing alcohol consumption and consistently taking any medications you may be on.
And best of all, exercise is an easy and free way to improve your heart health that’s in your control.
“By doing something as simple as exercise on a regular basis, you can greatly reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease or slow the progression of existing heart disease,” says Dr. Van Iterson. “You don’t need to overthink it for it to be successful. You just have to do it.”