It should come as no surprise that one of the best ways to improve your heart health is to exercise. Exercise can be used both as a preventative measure, and as a way to recover and become healthier once you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease.
Exercise as Prevention for Heart Disease
Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease is the best way to ensure long-term heart health. Being physically active creates changes in your whole body that promote a healthy heart. These include: (*1)
- Reducing obesity
- Boosting insulin sensitivity
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving cholesterol levels
- Reducing chronic inflammation
- Increasing endothelial function
By exercising before you are diagnosed with any form of heart disease, you will be able to exercise harder and experience more of a benefit.
In one study that examined the findings of 33 studies on physical activity and heart disease prevention, it was found that those who exercised at a moderate intensity for 150 minutes each week (the minimum amount recommended by US guidelines) were at a 14% lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) than those who were not physically active, and those who exercised at a moderate intensity for 300 minutes each week were at a 20% lower risk of CVD.
Even just one hour of walking each week led to a lower risk of CVD compared to those with a sedentary lifestyle. The more exercise that one participated in, up to about 300 minutes/week, the higher reduction in CVD risk.
The message is clear: movement builds a healthy heart.
If you are between 18 and 64 years of age, it is recommended that you get a minimum of either 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, plus 2 days per week of muscle-strengthening activities. (*1,2) For optimal health, you should double these figures. It is best to get a mixture of both moderate and vigorous aerobic exercise.
Examples of Moderate-Intensity Aerobic Exercise:
- Brisk walking
- Yard work
Examples of Vigorous-Intensity Aerobic Exercise:
- Mountain biking
- Swimming laps
- Singles tennis
- Jumping rope
Examples of Muscle-Strengthening Activities:
- Weight training
- Resistance band training
- Rock climbing
- Calisthenics – using body weight as resistance
When planning your optimal workout routine, you also want to think about including exercises that increase flexibility and bone strength. While these are not directly applicable to heart health, they will help to keep you in good physical health for longer, allowing you to continue partaking in aerobic and resistance training exercises.
Bone-strengthening exercises are those in which you are jolting your body, allowing your bones to grow stronger. Some examples include jogging, jumping rope, and playing sports like soccer or basketball.
One of the best flexibility exercises is yoga, which can also provide moderate aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening. You can also simply stretch after each time you do aerobic activities.
Exercise as Treatment for Heart Disease
If you have been diagnosed with heart disease, exercise is a must in order to get better and live longer. Studies suggest that exercise following a cardiac event can help you live longer while enjoying an improved quality of life. (*3)
In a study examining the effects of exercise on recovery from coronary heart disease (CHD), exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation reduced the likelihood of dying from a cardiac event by 26%, and even reduced all causes of mortality by 20%. This means that you are likely to live longer if you exercise once you have been diagnosed with heart disease than if you do not.
Another study examined the effectiveness of exercise interventions compared with drug interventions for those with coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and diabetes. (*4) This study found that exercise was as effective as drug interventions in the treatment of heart failure, stroke rehab, and prevention of coronary heart disease and diabetes.
The Best Exercise Plan for Those with Heart Disease
There is no one-size-fits-all exercise plan once you already have cardiovascular disease.3 The reasoning is that everyone will be in a different place physically, and you will want to work with your doctors to customize a plan that will help you to slowly grow stronger and healthier.
Your doctor can help you create a specific exercise therapy that combines the right intensity, length, and frequency of exercise. This plan will tend to change over time depending on the stage of your heart disease and your overall physical strength.