What Are the Best Exercises for Heart Health and Why?

Best exercises for heart health
Amy20MD 1

Medical reviewed by Amy Rogers, MD MPH FACPM

Preventive Medicine, Public Health, Lifestyle Medicine, Pandemic Response, Global Health

Even a little movement can go a long way in boosting your health, especially heart health. However, many Americans are less active than recommended. With heart disease being the leading cause of death in the U.S., let’s discover the best exercises for heart health that you can try daily.

We’ll show you a complete rundown of those exercises for a healthy heart. We’ll also touch upon essential tips for home exercise for heart patients.

Why is exercise good for your heart? 

Exercising regularly also means putting your heart and muscles to work regularly. 

It will pay off by amping up your heart’s power, making sure blood reaches every corner of your body. More oxygen may also get to your muscles thanks to those widened capillaries (1). 

The trick is to spice up your workout with different heart-friendly exercises. You don’t have to do them all; choose the ones that suit your style and keep at it. The secret ingredient is consistency, so make it a habit in your daily routine (2). 

Working out with friends, family, or a trainer can make it much more enjoyable. Get ready for friendly competition, encouragement, and laughter, and reach your goals together!

Note that exercise intensity can be divided into categories (3, 4, 5):

  • Light-intensity exercises are everyday daily tasks that don’t make you break a sweat. They can be cooking or doing light housework.
  • Moderate-intensity activities should increase your heart rate, make you breathe harder, and sweat. You can still hold a conversation, but singing might be a challenge. 
  • Vigorous-intensity exercises also increase your heart and breathing rate. You will begin to sweat shortly, and speaking full sentences may require some serious effort. 

The intensity level of an activity is all about how much effort it takes. What might feel like a light-intensity activity for one person could actually be moderate-intensity for someone else (4). 

If you want to give your heart a real boost, aim for moderate- and vigorous-intensity activities. Remember, though, even light-intensity activities are way better than doing nothing for your heart health (4).

If you want a more accurate way to gauge your exercise intensity, check out your target heart rate. The AHA suggests a handy chart that shows the safe target heart rates based on your age (6):

Best exercises for heart health

Is exercise the fastest way to improve cardiovascular health?

There is nothing called a ‘quick fix’ for a healthy heart. The key to keeping heart disease at bay is to lead a healthy lifestyle that spans your entire life (7). 

It goes beyond just regular exercise – you must adopt a heart-healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, find effective ways to manage stress and bypass smoking and alcohol (8).

5 best exercises for a healthy heart

What are the best exercises for heart health

Similar to other muscles, your heart needs exercise to stay healthy and perform at its optimal level. 

Being more active can naturally shield against heart, kidney, and lung diseases like stroke and cancer (3). Exercise may support you in controlling many risk factors by (1):

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving cholesterol profile
  • Reducing the risk of obesity
  • Lowering C-reactive protein (CRP) levels (a marker of inflammation)
  • Managing blood sugar and insulin levels

You don’t have to be an athlete to reap all the benefits of physical activities. The key is to make them your daily habit.  

Many people fall into the trap of going with one exercise they love and stick to it until they get bored and quit. However, our best bet is to include different types of exercises to take care of your overall well-being (2).

Set off on an exploration of our top five heart-strengthening exercises.

1. Cardio for heart health: Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is also called endurance exercise or cardio exercise. As its name suggests, this type can be a powerful ally in bolstering your heart health.

Cardio exercises are designed to make your heart beat faster and make you break a sweat. Over time, it strengthens your heart and lungs, making them perform better (4).

Cardio for heart health involves moving your large muscle groups, such as those in your arms and legs (4). Here are fun ways to get your blood flowing (2, 4):

  • Ascending and descending stairs
  • Gardening, such as digging or hoeing
  • Guiding a shopping cart around a store
  • Walking, hiking, jogging, running
  • Water aerobics or swimming laps
  • Bicycling, skateboarding, rollerblading, and jumping rope
  • Ballroom dancing and aerobic dancing
  • Engaging in sports like football, tennis, hockey, and basketball

Among them, brisk walking is at the top of all those activity lists. It’s an easy and fun way to get more active without fancy equipment or complicated routines: you just need to take roughly 100 steps per minute (9).

As one study suggests, if you put in a mere 30 minutes of brisk walking a day and five days a week, you can slash 19% your risk of coronary heart disease (10). 

2. Interval training

Time is always short, and spending hours at the gym can be tough for many people. The good news is interval training can help reduce the training time (11, 12).

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is when you do short bursts of intense activity at near-maximum effort with rest or chill low-intensity exercise in between (11). Some research suggests that it could boost your fitness level just as much, if not more, than sticking to moderate-intensity training (12, 13).

When you keep bouncing your heart rate up and down, it can help strengthen your blood vessels, burn calories, and clear out fat and sugar from the blood (11). 

The 4 × 4 routine is a popular HIIT method. 

Basically, do four intense 4-minute intervals, pushing your heart rate up to 85-95% of its maximum rate. Then, ease off the gas with 3 minutes of low-intensity active recovery, keeping your heart rate around 70% of its maximum rate (14). 

In general, it is highly effective for improving your cardiorespiratory fitness (14). 

But is it the best exercise for cardiovascular health? 

However, in one small study of people engaging in HIIT and other endurance training with rapid progressive intensity over 4 weeks, experts found that excessive exercise could cause trouble with energy production in cells and the regulation of blood sugar (15).

So you should not overdo interval training and progress intensity at a reasonable rate. Combining HIIT with other types of exercise is best.

3. Strength training (Resistance training)

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you should do strength training exercises at least two times a week, with some rest days in between (3).

Muscle-strengthening activities can amp up your muscles’ strength, power, and endurance.

It’s ideal to challenge the strength of your major muscle groups: core, back, chest, hips, arms, legs, and shoulders (16). Resistance can come in many forms, from resistance bands and weights to your own body weight (4, 17, 18):

  • Doing pushups, pull-ups, and sit-ups
  • Lifting weights, climbing stairs
  • Digging in the garden
  • Doing dips and squats
  • Doing pilates
  • Playing tug-of-war

With bone-strengthening activities, your limbs carry your body’s weight while your muscles push against your bones. This duo helps keep your bones strong. 

Running, walking, hopping, jumping rope, and lifting weights are examples of bone-strengthening exercises to strengthen the heart (4).

Many of these strengthening exercises can also be aerobic, as they get your heart rate up and make your lungs work harder (4). Also, strong muscles can build a good foundation and make it easier to do aerobics and daily tasks (15).

Doing resistance exercises just once, twice, or three times a week, or even doing a total of 1-59 minutes, can slash your risk of total cardiovascular events (including heart attack or stroke) by a whopping 40% to 70% (5, 19). 

4. Flexibility (Stretching)

Aim to rock stretching exercises at least two times a week while also including them with other workout sessions. Besides improving your flexibility, these exercises can stretch the muscle you will use and help avoid muscle pain or cramps (20, 21). 

As its name suggests, you can do flexibility exercises anywhere with minimal space. They are gentle and easy to follow (21).

Yoga, pilates, and tai chi are all examples of stretching that help boost your flexibility and improve your balance and are great additions to a workout plan. Remember to stretch gently; it shouldn’t hurt (4, 16, 21).

Stretching helps improve your flexibility. It enables you to bend, twist, and reach without any fuss. You can easily move your joints and tackle any aerobics or strength training challenge (4).

Researchers also discovered that 12 weeks of laid-back stretching can lower your chances of heart attacks and strokes. You’ll experience improved blood flow, vascular function, and bypass stiffness (22). 

5. Movement throughout the day

Don’t sweat if you’re short on time for heart-strengthening exercises. The solution is as simple as moving more throughout the day. 

Sitting too much isn’t heart-friendly. In fact, it can heighten the risk factors for heart disease, such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity, even if you rock that 30-minute exercise mark daily (23, 24).

So remember to give your chair a break. You can stand up, stretch leisurely, take the stairs, stroll, or dance around during breaks. They don’t really count as exercise, yet all add up to a healthier heart (23). 

Plus, make small changes to your everyday life, like walking or biking to work or school. Moving with household chores, such as vacuuming and yard work, can even count as a workout.

Get your heart pumping with energetic aerobic activities and strength training. Interval training can help you make the most of your workout time. Also, don’t forget the power of everyday movements and practicing resistance training between exercises. Try to mix different exercises for your heart-strengthening game.

Right duration to engage in heart-strengthening exercises

The AHA recommends that adults should participate in one of the following physical activity durations each week to fortify their heart health (25):

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise
  • 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise

If you prefer a mix of both, a rule of thumb is that 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity counts the same as 2 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (17, 25).

For more favorable outcomes, you can extend the duration to (3, 25):

  • 300 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity
  • 150 minutes or more of vigorous-intensity physical activity

For preschoolers aged 3 to 5, let them enjoy three hours of playtime daily. As for the older kids aged 6 to 17, the target is to get moving for 60 minutes or more every day. Ensure to include vigorous-intensity aerobic exercises, muscle-building activities, and bone-strengthening workouts at least thrice a week (25). 

If you’re a senior, try to add at least 20 minutes of daily physical activity. A study with over 3,000 Italian seniors aged 65 and older found that exercising early in life reaped the most significant cardiovascular rewards (26).

Regarding pregnancy, consult your doctor about safe physical activities during and after delivery.

Alongside exercise, other healthy lifestyle choices are crucial. Exercise strengthens your heart, improves blood flow, and opens up capillaries to deliver more oxygen. The key is choosing a variety of heart-strengthening exercises that suit your preferences and maintaining consistency in your routine.

Precautions while doing home exercise for heart patients

In general, the benefits of regular physical activity far outweigh the risks to the heart and lungs (27). But some exercises to strengthen the heart might take a toll on your body.

Before you start and after you finish aerobic or strengthening activities, walk slowly for five to 10 minutes (20). 

Warming up and cooling down allow a gradual increase in heart rate and breathing at the start of your workout, as well as a gradual decrease at the end. After a workout, do some stretching to improve flexibility (20).

Before jumping into your workout, spend 5 minutes stretching or moving your body to warm up those muscles and get your heart pumping. And don’t forget to give yourself some cool-down time with a more relaxed pace after you’re done (28).

Get yourself into comfy, loose-fitting clothes and have a water bottle within reach to stay hydrated (29).

It’s always good to consult your doctor about what activities are safe for heart patients. This is because their heart needs to work harder to pump blood (3, 17). 

Avoid going all out with intense exercises too quickly (1). The excessively released adrenaline can cause a heart attack, especially if you are (26, 27, 30):

  • Young adult with a congenital heart condition. Congenital means the heart issue has been there since birth.
  • Middle-aged and older adults who have coronary heart disease

In turn, start slowly, go easy, and gradually increase the duration, intensity, and frequency over time (28).

Having mildly sore muscles for days when you’re new to exercise is normal. Yet stop right away and call your doctor if you have chest pain or dizziness (27). Here are some other red flags that you’re working out too hard (20, 28):

  • Angina: a feeling of squeezing, burning, pressure, or tightness under the chest
  • Extreme tiredness or confusion
  • Unusual shortness of breath
  • Fast or uneven heartbeat
  • Nausea

If your angina sticks around for over a few minutes and you notice other symptoms like nausea and excessive sweating, dial 911 or have someone bring you to the closest emergency room. It could be a sign of a heart attack (20).

Warm up and cool down for 5 minutes before and after your workout. Talk to your doctor about which activities are safe for your heart so you don’t strain it too much. Start easy and slowly increase the intensity. If you feel angina, nausea, and other heart attack symptoms, seek immediate medical help.

Does walking make your heart stronger?

You might think walking is a piece of cake, but it’s a great way to get your heart pumping. It’s gentle on your joints, and you can do it anywhere, anytime. Walking is so flexible and simple that you can keep up with it effortlessly.

Can exercise reverse a weak heart

Regular exercise can tackle many heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even coronary artery disease. Studies also suggest that moderate exercise can reverse the damage caused by a sedentary lifestyle

What are the 4 signs your heart is quietly failing?

If you’re always feeling out of breath and tired, that could be a red flag that your heart is struggling. And watch out for that pesky edema, which means your tissues are holding onto too much fluid. Also, don’t ignore annoying coughs or wheezing.

Which drink is best for the heart?

Water is the drink to go for a healthy heart. It can help ensure your blood flows smoothly. Your heart may pump that blood all over the body more easily. Plus, sipping on water instead of other drinks helps bypass extra calories and reduce the risk of obesity, which puts your heart health at risk.

Summary

To keep your heart in top shape, engage in energetic aerobic activities and strength training. Maximize your workout time with interval training, and remember to stretch to warm up and cool down.

Don’t forget to have fun: choose a few different exercises from those five best exercises for heart health that you enjoy, and be consistent in your routine.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week to train your heart.

When doing home exercise for heart patients, start slowly before increasing intensity. You should notice any abnormal feelings like angina.

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Amy20MD 1

Medical reviewed by Amy Rogers, MD MPH FACPM

Preventive Medicine, Public Health, Lifestyle Medicine, Pandemic Response, Global Health

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