One of the most important things you can do for your heart and overall health is exercise. Exercise can help to lower your blood pressure and triglycerides, raise HDL cholesterol levels, reduce your risk of cancer and stroke, and can even extend your life.
Exercise can also help you to maintain a healthy weight by revving up your metabolism, so you burn more calories, even at rest. Plus, studies show that aerobic exercise is a quicker mood elevator than antidepressants. It also decreases your blood sugar and improves your body’s ability to use insulin, preventing insulin resistance and diabetes.
What Are the Best Exercises for a Healthy Heart?
When people ask me for the best exercise to maintain a healthy heart, my answer is always the same: "The kind you'll keep doing day in and day out." The important thing is finding a way to be active and then enjoying yourself, without worrying about whether you're working "hard enough." My favorite ways to exercise and maintain heart health are walking and dancing.
A mile of walking at any speed burns as many calories as a mile of running, without the risk of injuring your muscles, ligaments, and joints. If you haven’t been active for a while, start out easy by walking for just 10 minutes a day. Your goal should be to add five minutes a week, building up to 30 minutes of walking five days a week.
With walking, speed isn’t as important as consistency. If you want to use a heart-rate monitor to pace yourself, go no higher than 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. Do not exert yourself at 80 or 85 percent, as so many fitness gurus used to advise. To get a rough idea of your maximal heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Multiply the answer by 0.70. The result is your target heart rate.
Dancing is also a powerful way to boost your heart health. As with walking, you don’t have to work up a sweat or push yourself until you’re out of breath to get the heart health benefits. You can easily create an exercise session out of dancing by adding a bit of stretching, yoga, and weight training.
Before you exercise, you want to get cleared by your doctor if you:
- Have been inactive for a long time
- Are a man over 40, or a woman over 45
- Have a heart health issue
- Have a family history of sudden cardiac death
Your doctor may want you to take a treadmill stress test and give you a specific exercise prescription suited to your health status and current level of conditioning. Plus, while you’re exercising watch for warning signs that you may be exercising too hard or too much.
Stop exercising immediately if you experience:
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Shortness of breath (unable to carry on a conversation)
- Jaw pain
- Arm tingling or numbness
- Tight feeling in the lungs (bronchospasm)
If you have one or more of these symptoms, stop exercising and rest. If symptoms persist after three to five minutes of rest, seek medical attention immediately. Also, be aware of any symptoms you may experience up to an hour after you finish your exercise session.
Know Your “Target Heart Zone”
Your “target heart zone” is measured by something called your rate pressure product (RPP). It’s the measure of the workload—or oxygen demand—of the heart at rest and during various stages of exercise. Your doctor will usually determine your RPP using an exercise stress test.
Your target heart zone is the ideal, safe RPP that keeps you working out below the threshold where you experience physical symptoms you are aware of, or below the threshold at which we noted EKG changes that the heart is not getting enough oxygen—regardless if you’re having perceived symptoms.
Anyone with cardiac concerns can find out their safe RPP range from their cardiologist or cardiac rehab team. It’s an integral part of your exercise prescription.
Make Sure You Warm Up & Cool Down
Before you do any exercise for heart health, warm up. Doing intense exercise without warming up dumps more fatty acids into your bloodstream than your muscles need, and those excess fatty acids can end up lining your blood vessel walls. Plus, sudden intense exertion can shock your heart and greatly increase your risk of having a heart attack.
Warming up also raises your heart rate gradually and facilitates the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids. Stretching gradually loosens muscles, tendons, and other tissues so they are more flexible and absorb shock or injury better. Many exercises, especially weightlifting and running, decrease range of motion unless you stretch.
After you exercise, it’s also important to cool down. The final ten minutes of your exercise should be done at an easier pace. When finished, repeat the stretches you did after your warm-up. Cooling-down stretches gradually decrease the intensity of exercising, improve flexibility, and help your body return to its resting state.
What Are the Worst Exercises for Your Heart?
While I highly recommend exercising daily for at least 30 minutes for optimal heart health, I advise against strenuous exercise like jogging or running—especially if you’re just starting an exercise program, you’re older, or you have a cardiovascular condition. Studies have shown a connection between heart attacks and sudden exertion, while moderate exercise has been shown to reduce the long-term risk of heart disease.
If you have heart health concerns, I also recommend avoiding racquetball. With racquetball, you’re either going 100 miles an hour moving to get the ball, or you’re completely stopped. Plus, you’re playing in very tight quarters, so you have little space to slow down. The start-stop action of racquetball can disrupt your cardiac rhythms or may predispose you to plaque rupture.
In addition to walking and dancing, good choices for heart-healthy exercise include swimming, doubles tennis, and golf. In fact, any sport that allows you to moderate your activity and exercise steadily at your own pace is a good choice.