3 Best Exercises for Heart Health

Regular exercise is important for all adults to keep their muscles strong and flexible, and is key for a healthy heart. Physical activity and exercise not only helps to prevent your risk of heart attack and heart disease but it can also help you improve and manage already developed heart conditions.

This article discusses the best type of exercises for optimal heart health.

Verywell / Michela Buttignol

Exercise and Your Heart 

Exercise and regular physical activity have several heart health benefits, including:

  • Increases heart muscle strength
  • Improves lung function
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Lowers high cholesterol
  • Lowers high blood sugar
  • Lowers high triglycerides
  • Decreases levels of C-reactive protein, an inflammatory protein elevated in chronic conditions
  • Reduces risk of heart attack and heart disease

Types of Exercises

To improve your heart health and reduce your risk of heart disease, it is important to incorporate aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching into your workout routine.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise is any activity that makes your heart beat faster and increases your breathing rate more than at rest, which pumps oxygenated blood to your working muscles. Over time, regular aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and lungs, making them work more efficiently. Aerobic exercise includes:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Jumping rope
  • Dancing
  • Bicycling
  • Jumping jacks
  • Stair climbing
  • Playing sports

Strength Training

Strength training is exercise tailored to specifically increase muscle strength though resistance training. Resistance can be in the form of weights, resistance bands, or through your own body weight with movements like:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Dips
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Step-ups

Stretching

Stretching is a form of exercise that increases the flexibility of your muscles and ability to move your joints through their full range of motion with movement. Proper muscle flexibility and joint mobility is necessary to decrease the risk of injury with physical activity and exercise.

How Long Should You Exercise and How Often? 

According to the 2019 guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association, adults should participate in one of the following physical activity durations each week in order to promote optimal heart health and lower the risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD):

  • 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity
  • 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity
  • An equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous physical activity

Exercise intensity is grouped into the following categories:

  • Light intensity: walking slowly, cooking, light housework
  • Moderate intensity: brisk walking (2.4-4.0 miles per hour), bicycling (5-9 miles per hour), dancing, active yoga, recreational swimming, gardening, vacuuming, raking leaves
  • Vigorous intensity: jogging, running, hiking, bicycling (≥10 miles per hour), swimming laps, jumping rope, aerobics, weight lifting, stair climbing, shoveling snow

These guidelines suggest that shorter durations of physical activity of 10 minutes or less can be just as beneficial as longer durations greater than 10 minutes. Therefore, the total duration of weekly physical activity should be stressed more than the duration of each individual activity or exercise session. 

To help make it easier to achieve your exercise goals, physical activity duration can be divided into 10 minute sessions: Fifteen 10 minute exercise sessions divided throughout the week can have similar benefits as five 30 minute sessions.

Additional exercise beyond the minimum recommendations further promotes better heart health and lowers heart disease risk. Enhanced positive outcomes have been associated with the following physical activity durations each week:

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

However, very high levels of exercise well beyond these amounts does not have significant additional benefits.

For adults who are unable to meet the minimum physical activity recommendations, participation in some form of exercise is still beneficial for good heart health. Unless your healthcare provider advises you to avoid physical activity for medical concerns, some exercise, when performed safely and properly, is better than none.

Exercise Precautions

Sedentary individuals should always start off slowly and gradually increase exercise intensity, duration, and frequency over time. If you quickly get short of breath, have a heart condition, or have high blood pressure, your healthcare provider may give you specific safety guidelines to follow.

For most adults without significant heart, lung, blood vessel, muscle, or joint problems, walking at an average pace of 3 miles per hour is generally a safe and effective way to add moderate-intensity physical activity to your day.

Always make sure to consult with your healthcare provider before beginning or increasing any exercise program to make sure that your heart, lungs, and blood vessels are healthy enough to operate properly.

Being Active When You Have Heart Disease 

If you have heart disease, your heart is not working as efficiently as it should, and will have to work harder to pump blood throughout your body when exercising. This is why you must start with lower intensity and shorter duration of physical activity to allow your heart time to get stronger and build up the capability to support the cardiovascular demands of exercising.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend keeping your heart rate within a target range and discontinuing exercise if your heart rate exceeds a certain limit to protect your heart and prevent damage from cardiac overload. These values will be personalized for you depending on your average resting heart rate.

Summary

Exercise is a specific form of physical activity that is structured and planned and includes aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching.  At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week is recommended to maintain good heart health and lower your risk of heart disease. Always make sure to talk with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise program to make sure that it is right for you.

A Word from Verywell 

Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for all adults to help maintain optimal heart health. A sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise can increase your risk of developing many conditions that not only affect your heart but other organs, as well. Starting off slowly and gradually increasing your physical activity intensity, frequency, and duration is crucial for allowing your body to adapt to a new change in pace and prevent injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is diet or exercise more important for heart health?

    Eating a balanced diet and performing regular exercise are equally important for maintaining good heart health.

  • Can exercise reverse heart disease?

    Regular exercise can help reverse several risk factors of heart disease like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary artery disease and can help improve overall heart and lung function. 

  • Do I need to warm up before my workout?

    Performing a short active warm-up before a workout can help improve blood flow, joint mobility, and flexibility to prevent injury. A warm-up routine should consist of moving your joints through their full range of motion and include things like leg lifts, marching, squatting, bending, arm lifts, and arm circles.

  • What’s the best cardio machine for heart health?

    All cardio machines are good options to improve heart health, and machine selection (treadmill, bicycle, elliptical, stair stepper, rower) should be chosen based on personal preference.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Physical activity and your heart

  2. Arnett DK, Blumenthal RS, Albert MA, Buroker AB, Goldberger ZD, Hahn EJ, Himmelfarb CD, Khera A, Lloyd-Jones D, McEvoy JW, Michos ED, Miedema MD, Muñoz D, Smith SC Jr, Virani SS, Williams KA Sr, Yeboah J, Ziaeian B. 2019 ACC/AHA Guideline on the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 2019 Sep 10;140(11):e596-e646. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000678.

  3. Department of Health and Human Services. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee.