It’s safe to say that most of us know that being physically active is good for us. For example, it can help us lose weight, strengthen our bones and muscles, and even improve our mood. But did you know that physical activity may also have important positive effects on your heart? That’s especially important because heart disease causes more deaths in the United States than any other disease. Read on to learn about physical activity and how it can help your heart.
What do healthcare providers mean by “physical activity?”
When they talk about physical activity, healthcare providers are generally referring to 4 types of activities:
- Aerobic, which includes running, swimming, walking, bicycling, and dancing. These activities make your heart beat faster and your lungs work harder.
- Muscle-strengthening, which includes push-ups, sit-ups, lifting weights, and doing yard work. These activities strengthen your muscles.
- Bone-strengthening, which includes walking, running, and jumping rope. These activities help strengthen your bones.
- Stretching, which includes yoga exercises and touching your toes.
Muscle- and bone-strengthening activities can also be aerobic, provided they make your heart and lungs work harder than usual. Running is an example of an activity that is aerobic and bone-strengthening.
Of the 4 types of physical activity, aerobic activity benefits your heart the most.
1. Exercise can make your heart stronger
When done regularly, moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activities can strengthen your heart muscle (see the table below for examples of aerobic activities). This will help your heart pump blood more efficiently throughout your body, including your lungs. That leads to better blood flow to your muscles and higher oxygen levels in your blood. In addition, tiny blood vessels in your body, called capillaries, widen, allowing them to deliver more oxygen throughout the body.
2. Exercise can reduce risk factors for coronary heart disease (CHD)
Certain traits, medical conditions, or lifestyle choices can raise your risk for CHD. And if you are inactive, you are more likely to develop CHD than people who are physically active.
Physical activity can help lower some CHD risks because it:
- Lowers blood pressure and triglycerides (harmful fat in the blood).
- Raises HDL cholesterol levels (the good type of cholesterol).
- Helps the body manage blood sugar and insulin levels, which lowers the risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
3. Exercise can reduce the risk of having a second heart attack
For people with CHD, regular aerobic activity can help the heart work better. It may also reduce the risk of a second heart attack in people who have already had one. Note that vigorous-intensity aerobic activity may not be safe for everyone with CHD. Talk with your healthcare provider about the physical activities that may be right for you.
Examples of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activities
Aerobic activities can be done with light, moderate, or vigorous intensity. The more fit you are, the harder you will have to work to increase the level of an activity. For example, a fit person who walks regularly will have to walk faster than a less fit person who rarely walks to increase his or her heart rate. The table below lists examples of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activities.
Adapted from Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES; National Institutes of Health; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NIH Publication No. 06-5714. June 2006.
How much physical activity should you get?
For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people get:
- At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150 minutes.
- At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes; or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
- Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits.
For lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, the AHA recommends:
- An average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity 3 or 4 times per week.
Get started now by making a plan and setting a goal. If you have been inactive, keep in mind that some physical activity is better than none. Start slowly and then gradually increase the amount of physical activity you do. Your heart will thank you!
Always talk with your healthcare provider before starting any new physical activity and about the kinds of activities that are best for you.
- 1. Medline Plus. Benefits of Exercise. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- 2. Heart.org. American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- 3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Physical Activity and Your Heart. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- 4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart. Accessed January 10, 2018.