A little exercise can go a long way toward a healthier life, even for patients with serious heart disease, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Researchers across the globe collected physical-activity data from more than 15,000 people with heart disease and at least one other risk factor, like diabetes, who had experienced an event such as a heart attack on average three years earlier.

More on Exercise

Perhaps not surprisingly, the study showed that people who did the most exercise and worked out at the hardest level were the least likely to die during the period studied.

But there was also hopeful news for heart-disease patients, for whom high-intensity exercise isn't possible. According to the study, the people who started off in the worst shape—sedentary, and with additional problems such as shortness of breath—saw significant benefits once they started getting even small amounts of regular exercise. This suggests that when it comes to exercise, patients at the highest risk actually have the most to gain.

“The main message is that modest increases in physical activity are likely to be very beneficial in people with coronary heart disease who do little or no exercise,” said the study’s lead investigator, Ralph Stewart, M.D., a cardiologist and honorary professor of medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. 

Just 10 minutes of brisk walking each day—or 15 to 20 minutes of slower walking—was associated with a 33 percent lower risk of dying, scientists pointed out in an editorial that accompanied the study

These results show that while more exercise is indeed better, physical activity at levels far below current health recommendations is linked to significant health benefits for people with heart disease. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests at least 150 minutes per week at a moderate intensity or at least 60 minutes per week at a vigorous intensity.)

How to Start Exercising

If you have heart disease and haven't exercised in awhile, talk to your doctor about what is safe before jumping in. And stay alert to any worrisome symptoms, such as dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, or nausea. They're all signs you should stop the activity and rest right away.

The experts we spoke with provided a few basic tips for improving your health with even small amounts of exercise:

Move in any way you're able to. “Every little bit counts,” says Rob Ostfeld, M.D., M.Sc., director of preventive cardiology at Montefiore Health System and the founder and director of the Montefiore-Einstein Cardiac Wellness Program. “If you can’t walk, [do] anything you can do to move—turn side to side, move your arms or legs. Anything you can do that you are comfortable with is terrific for blood vessel function, fitness, and strength. Do it for 5 minutes, then rest if you have to.”

Build up gradually. If your goal is to take up running, for example, but you've been largely sedentary, start by walking. And don't overexert yourself.

“If patients use their body as a cue to see if they are pushing too much, they can reasonably build up their capacity to exercise to quite a good level,” Ostfeld says. “One of my patients went from being able to walk only one block to jogging 4 miles over a couple of years.”

Consider cardiac rehab. These medically supervised programs are specifically designed to help heart patients exercise safely while building strength and balance, and they're often paired with support and education. If you've had a heart attack or other heart problem, ask your doctor whether you might be eligible for a cardiac rehab program.

Don't Forget Your Diet

Protecting yourself from heart disease isn't about exercise alone.

“You cannot out-exercise an unhealthful diet,” Ostfeld points out.

Reducing your meat intake and increasing plant-based food by incorporating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is ideal. You should also minimize sweets and processed foods.

“I counsel every patient to eat a plant-based diet and exercise daily, increasing intensity very gradually," says Kim Williams, M.D., the chief of the division of cardiology at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a recent past president of the American College of Cardiology.