Stay active to improve heart health

Working out strengthens your body's most important muscle, your heart

Last updated: February 2013

Exercise is so effective at protecting your heart because it strengthens the heart muscle at the same time that it helps keep weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure at healthy levels. It may also reduce arterial inflammation, which increases heart-attack risk, and slow the progression of heart disease. Indeed, people with strong cardiovascular function, regardless of their weight, are healthier and live longer than their sedentary counterparts. Strength training improves heart-health, too, since more muscle equals a faster metabolism, which makes it easier to keep weight off.

Check your activity level

First-time exercisers—or those returning to it after years of inactivity—need to get medical clearance only if they're men 45 and older or women 55 and older who are planning to embark on a vigorous (rather than moderate) program. Also consult a physician if you have such chronic conditions as arthritis, diabetes, or uncontrolled hypertension, or symptoms like chest pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath.

Ideally, you should include three to five sessions a week of moderate- or high-intensity aerobic activity, and at least two sessions of resistance exercise that works your upper and lower body. If you want to lose weight, you may have to exercise more: about an hour a day of brisk walking.

Make these changes

Exercise advice differs depending on your goal. Pick the category below that seems right for you:

To get started. It doesn't really matter what you do as long as you do something. The most popular option is walking. But if you find that boring, try biking or joining a gym. Enroll in a water aerobics class. Join a hiking club. If you're truly at a loss, invest in an hour or two with a personal trainer, who can assess your needs and help devise a program that meets them. Be sure the trainer is certified by a reputable organization, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

To get back in shape. Even if your days of fast-paced tennis are but a memory, resuming exercise can restore your fitness of decades earlier, research shows. But to protect yourself, don't go back to the routines of your youth. You may only be able to do two vigorous workouts a week instead of the three or four you did when you were younger. It also pays to adjust your goals and expectations. Instead of aiming for a marathon, start by shooting for a 5K or 10K race.

To lose excess weight. You need to combine physical activity with dietary changes if you expect to lose weight. And you have to make it a regular part of your life-preferably at least an hour a day of brisk walking or its equivalent.

To kick it up a notch. People who are already physically active can get additional and more extensive health and fitness benefits by becoming even more active. One method to give your exercise routine a boost is interval training—adding spurts of higher intensity to exercises you're already doing. For example, simply switch from waling on a level surface to going up hill counts. Or add variety to your workouts. Join a yoga or dance class. Try a rowing machine. Fitness professionals call this cross-training, and it has the advantage of working different muscle groups, which adds to your overall fitness and avoids overtaxing your muscles. It also allows you to exercise harder without exhausting yourself.

If you already have heart disease

Physical exercise can help prevent heart attacks even in people who have been diagnosed with heart disease. Just be sure to work out safely. Ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist with expertise in heart disease. And ask about any precautions you should take, including these:

  • Avoid exercises or environmental conditions that cause profuse sweating, which can trigger a dangerous drop in blood pressure and may increase the risk of blood clots.
  • Keep your heart rate below the point at which abnormalities appeared on your stress test or when chest discomfort starts.
  • If you are on beta-blockers, which can slow your heart rate, gauge exertion by how hard exercise feels and whether you can breathe and talk easily.
  • When strength training, don't strain or hold your breath during exertion, since that can cause blood pressure to spike.

Ratings of heart tests

Click on the image at right to see our Ratings of tests used to screen for heart disease. It can help find the tests that are best for you, based on your your age, gender, and risk level.

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