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Exercise and Heart Health

Staying physically fit has seemingly endless benefits. In addition to helping prevent heart disease, exercise is known to reduce stress and improve sleep, energy level, mood and even brain functioning. For people with heart disease, exercise can keep symptoms in check and prevent problems from getting worse.

Most Americans don’t get enough exercise and, therefore, don’t reap the health benefits. Find out how you can stay active at any age—even if you have heart disease.  

Exercise and Your Heart

Regular exercise reduces the risk of many forms of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke, peripheral artery disease and coronary heart disease.

How? Exercise:
  • Lowers blood pressure.
  • Lowers LDL ("bad”) cholesterol that can clog your heart’s arteries.
  • Opens blood vessels and gets your heart pumping, which improves circulation.
  • Helps you shed excess pounds, reducing the strain on your heart.
  • Helps your body maintain the right balance of hormones and other factors involved in clotting and inflammation that may promote fatty buildups in the heart’s arteries.

Americans fall short on exercise. Together, we can do better.

Only half of U.S. adults get the recommended amount of exercise, and that proportion drops among older age groups. Stay healthy no matter what your age by striving for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity at least five days a week. The good news is benefits begin at lower amounts , so start where you are and make a goal to achieve the recommended amount.

Most people can safely exercise without any special medical evaluation. Just get out and go!
Download: Tips to Get Moving

Added Benefits

In addition to the benefits for your heart health, exercise:
  • Improves mood and reduces depression by boosting “feel-good” hormones called endorphins.
  • Promotes sleep.
  • Improves sex drive.
  • Keeps stress levels in check.
  • Builds lean muscle mass, which helps you burn calories even when you’re not exercising.
  • Improves balance and prevents falls, especially among older people.
  • Lowers blood sugar levels, which helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Helps prevent osteoporosis and arthritis.
  • Helps prevent some types of cancer, and may improve the body’s response to cancer treatments.
  • May ward off dementia, or at least delay its onset.
  • Can help you build a healthier lifestyle overall. Research shows that people who exercise regularly are less likely to smoke and tend to choose healthier food options.

What’s the Right Amount of Exercise?

Optimally, you should aim for at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity activity plus two sessions of muscle strength training per week, according to the

Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. For example, you could take a brisk 30-minute walk at least five times a week and do two sessions of weight lifting or Pilates.

What’s moderate intensity? Use the talking—or breath—test: If you can easily carry on a conversation with full sentences, you’re not exerting enough effort. Try increasing the intensity of your activity. If you’re walking, quicken your pace. If you’re doing a cardio workout, add some jumps. For strengthening, push yourself by adding more weight or more repetitions.   

MORE: Do You Have 'Sitting Disease'?

Alternatively, you can aim for 75 minutes of high-intensity activity per week, plus two sessions of muscle strength training. Examples are running, high-impact aerobics and high-intensity interval training, called HIIT. When doing high-intensity exercise, you should be breathing hard such that you can only say a few words at a time.

If you’re new to exercise, it’s OK to start slowly with smaller amounts of time. Begin with shorter—but regular—sessions and work your way up. Remember, any amount of physical activity is better than none at all.

If you have heart disease or another heart condition, check with your health care team before starting or intensifying your activities.

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Last Reviewed: March 2019 | Medical Reviewer: Viet Le, PA, AACC
Originally Published: May 2017 | Medical Reviewers: Andrew M. Freeman, MD, FACC; Jordan M. Prutkin, MD, FACC
CardioSmart Editor-in-Chief: Martha Gulati, MD, FACC

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