Our bodies are meant to move, so it’s not surprising that exercise is an important way to keeping your heart healthy. In fact, figuring out how to lead an active, healthy life may be one of the best things you can do for your heart health today and in the future. It’s also a great stress-buster.
Whether it’s work demands, taking care of our families, financial woes, or braving seemingly never-ending to-do lists, too much stress—and the resulting “fight-or-flight” response you feel when your heart starts racing and your body tenses—may take a toll on the heart too. Read on to learn about how to be more physically active and in tune with your stress levels.
Why it’s important
Did you know:
- 80% of heart disease and stroke can be prevented simply by making better choices including getting plenty of exercise, eating a healthy diet and maintaining your ideal weight.
- Being inactive or not exercising is ranked right up there with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and obesity as one of the five major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Being physically fit may be as important as weight alone.
- Engaging in regular exercise can lower the likelihood that someone will have a heart attack or experience another cardiac event, such as a stroke, or need bypass surgery or coronary angioplasty.
- Start where you are and have a goal to increase to 30 minutes or more a day. The good news is that you can break up your exercise during the day. As the time adds up, so do the health effects.
The power of exercise
Getting regular exercise may be your best defense against heart disease or having another cardiac event.
Physical activity can help:
- Strengthen your heart muscle
- Keep your weight down
- Lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels
- Reduce your risk of some cancers
- Lower your risk of stroke/dementia
- Improve bone density
- Reduce the risk of death, hospitalization, or illness
- And so much more!
As mentioned, exercise is also a great stress-buster and can boost your mood and self-esteem. Too much stress may be harmful to the heart. While clinicians are still trying to understand the connection between stress and heart problems, research suggests that sudden emotional stress may trigger a heart attack or other event in some people who already have a hardening of their coronary arteries, and even in those who don’t. Moreover, exposure to ongoing stress—when that fight-or-flight reaction stays activated—can put someone at greater risk for a number of health problems, heart disease being one of them.
Need another reason to be more physically active? Research shows that exercise can make it easier to fall and stay asleep, helping you to feel more alert. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to a greater risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, accidents and other health issues.
How much is enough?
Experts say you get the greatest benefits when you achieve at least 30 minutes of moderate (aerobic) activity most days. Activities may include taking a brisk walk, swimming, playing tennis, riding a bicycle, dancing, water aerobics, gardening—even busy housework.
If you can’t find a full 30 minutes to exercise, remember that doing something is better than nothing. Even bursts of activity of 10-minutes or less—running in place, doing jumping jacks or other movements to get your heart rate going—three or more times a day have also been shown to have health benefits when cumulatively achieving 30 minutes.
Exercise is usually just what the doctor ordered
Sometimes people who have heart disease or have suffered a heart attack or other cardiac event worry that they will overexert their heart with exercise. But exercise is important for your heart health.
Consider cardiac rehabilitation programs. These supervised exercise and nutrition programs are often recommended for people who have undergone heart surgery or have had a heart attack or stable congestive heart failure. Cardiac rehabilitation, which includes exercise, has been shown to reduce the risk of future heart problems or dying from a heart attack and lowers the likelihood someone will need to go back to the hospital or emergency room for a heart problem.
As always, talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise program or if you have concerns (see a list of questions you might want to ask below.) Some warning signs that you may be pushing too hard include:
- Sudden dizziness, lightheadedness, chest pain or chest pressure, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea
- Symptoms that are unusual for you
It’s important to remember that our minds can sometimes get the better of us, especially if we aren’t finding ways to lower stress. Prolonged stress can increase stress hormones and chemicals that promote inflammation in the body.
Exercise is a good way to counteract this and give your body a surge of the mood-enhancing chemicals called endorphins. Deep breathing and mindfulness-based meditation can also ease tension, helping to train your mind to focus on the present and turn your thoughts inward to what matters most to you. Whether it’s through exercise, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or other activities that help you unplug, it’s important to relieve stress and stay positive.
7 tips to more active and mindful living
- Get active and stay active – find an exercise routine that fits your interests. Do you prefer to exercise on your own, participate in a team sport or walk with a friend? Can you reduce the amount of time you sit at a desk or computer? For example, if you have a desk job, can you walk or pace during conference calls rather than sit?
- Make the time – carve out time to exercise and mark it in your calendar. Set an alarm notification on your smartphone or other wearable device for reminders throughout the day. Can you take a brisk 30-minute walk at the beginning or end of your day? Or can you find 10 minutes somewhere in your day to get started?
- Always pace yourself and know your limits. Use the breath test to know your limits: You should be able to say a few words, but not a whole sentence, when you’re working at your goal.
- Think outside the box – find creative ways to move more. For example, try parking farther away from a store, take the stairs instead of an elevator, and lift weights when you are in front of the TV. Keep track of the number of steps you take by using your smartphone or other wearable device. Take a step challenge with your family and friends to track total steps taken each day.
- Make it a social affair – enlist your family and friends to commit to a more active life and hold each other to it. There are lots of activities and adventures you can do together to stay fit – go for a nature walk or hike, find a safe path to ride bikes, go kayaking, sign up for a local fun run, or turn up the music and dance.
- De-stress – pursue things that will help you reconnect with yourself. For some people, taking deep breaths, meditating or yoga can help.
- See a professional if you need to – stress, anxiety and depression can take a toll on the heart and they may also make existing heart problems worse. Don’t be afraid to see a mental health professional if you need extra support or mindfulness therapies.
(Click to view)
Talking to your care team
Exercise, diet and other behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking should be part of discussions about your heart and overall health. Below are some questions you may want to ask or think about related to exercise and stress before your doctor appointments.
- How often should I exercise each week?
- What types of activities should I try? Are there exercises I should avoid?
- Should I take my pulse while I exercise? What pulse rate would I ideally want?
- Are there warning signs I should watch for that might mean I’m overdoing it?
- Do I qualify to participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program?
- Should I also include strength training or lifting weights?
- What is my ideal weight? If I need to lose weight, how many calories should I look to burn everyday with exercise in addition to watching what I eat?
- What are some good ways to manage stress?
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
MedlinePlus – U.S. National Library of Medicine
Last Reviewed: March 2019 | Medical Reviewer: Viet Le, PA, AACC
Originally Published: December 2015 | Medical Reviewer: Andrew M. Freeman, MD, FACC
CardioSmart Editor-in-Chief: Martha Gulati, MD, FACC