Dr. Amanda Anderson, PT, DPT, MS - Board-Certified Orthopedic Specialist
Everyone has heard that exercise and a nutritious diet results in "better heart health." What you may not have heard is how you should be exercising for optimal heart health. How much? For how long? What types of activities should you do?
In this article, we'll explore just that. Keeping active is one of the best things you can do to achieve optimal heart health, and some movement is always better than none. Figuring out your ideal combination of exercise habits for heart health can change your quality of life for the better.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all states and territories of the United States have more than 15% of physically inactive adults (and this number jumps to 47.7% in some areas!).
The southern United States has the highest incidence of physical inactivity. There are also clear racial disparities in the prevalence of inactivity, with Hispanics demonstrating the highest inactivity levels, followed by non-Hispanic Black Americans.
Clearly, healthy exercise habits are not as accessible or as widely promoted as they need to be across the United States.
The good news is you don't need a gym membership or even any equipment to be physically active. Walking to the store instead of driving counts, as long as you can safely do so. Even things like mowing the lawn or weeding the garden count towards your total activity goals.
The key is getting in a combination of aerobic activity and strength training. According to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition, adults need both aerobic activity and resistance training to improve their heart health.
Aerobic activity is a necessary exercise habit for heart health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "aerobic" literally means "with oxygen." In doing aerobic exercise, you improve your cardiovascular health by increasing your muscles' ability to use oxygen more efficiently.
Aerobic activity not only improves your heart health but also provides many other additional benefits. It lowers your blood pressure, increases "good" cholesterol, better controls blood sugar, and helps with weight management.
Together, these factors impact your risk of heart attack or stroke. Because of this, making a habit of regular aerobic activity is essential for your well-being.
You have many options when it comes to deciding what type of aerobic activity to do. The most important thing to consider is what will motivate you to keep doing it in the long term. The key to heart health is consistency with whatever activity you choose.
Some lower impact options include:
Higher impact activities include:
According to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition, adults should complete at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. Moderate-intensity means you're working hard enough to be a little out of breath and break a sweat; however, you should still be able to talk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While that may sound like a lot of time, it's important to remember that your aerobic activity does not need to happen all at once. Break it up however you need to! That could mean 15 minutes twice a day five days per week, or you can do an hour a day for three days per week.
You also stand to gain additional health benefits if you exercise beyond the recommended 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.
Alternatively, you can perform vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for 75 to 150 minutes per week. While it is less time, you're working harder during the time that you are exercising.
Any time you're doing any aerobic activity, you're improving your heart health in the process. If you don't have time for 30 minutes each day, exercise during the 10 minutes you do have. Breaking the time up into smaller chunks can seem less daunting and make your exercise goals that much more achievable.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, muscle strengthening is defined as activities that specifically work all the major muscle groups of the body, including your legs, back, chest, abdomen, and arms.
According to Kerry J. Stewart, an exercise physiologist at Johns Hopkins, resistance training for muscle strengthening has greater effects on body composition than aerobic training. It can help reduce body fat by increasing your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn just to live before factoring in the calories you burn during exercise.
For muscle strengthening to be effective for heart health, you must exercise to the point where it's hard for you to do another repetition or complete movement of a certain activity, like lifting a weight or doing a squat. For maximum benefits, do 8 to 15 repetitions of an exercise for at least 2 to 3 sets with a short rest between sets.
Muscle-strengthening involves a wide variety of activities, like:
Aim to perform muscle-strengthening workouts at least twice a week in addition to your aerobic conditioning. Sometimes it's helpful to split up your resistance training. For example, work on your back, arms, and chest one day of the week, and then work on legs and abs the other day.
Absolutely not! Many exercises combine both aerobic activity and muscle strengthening. Pretty much any resistance exercise can be made "aerobic" by lowering the weight and performing faster reps. Some days, you may want to lift heavier weights and go a little slower, and that's perfectly okay.
For more ideas on how to better tailor your weekly activity levels, take a look at the exercise chart on the CDC website.
Make sure you speak to your health care provider before starting an exercise program. Some people, especially those with asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or arthritis, may need specific guidelines or modifications.
Similarly, if you develop any unusual shortness of breath, chest tightness, chest, shoulder, or jaw pain, lightheadedness, dizziness, or confusion while exercising, stop immediately and contact your health care provider for guidance.
When it comes to exercise habits for a healthy heart, some activity is always better than none. For optimal heart benefits, make sure you're getting in a combination of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises on a regular basis.
According to the CDC guidelines, the ideal frequency includes 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week with at least two days of resistance training. Most importantly, make sure you're spending this time doing activities you enjoy! When you find the right exercises for you, you're much more likely to stick with them in the long run.
For more suggestions and tips on improving your overall heart health via diet and supplementation, see How To Keep Your Heart Healthy and Well.