Aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching are all beneficial exercises for heart health.
To improve your heart health and reduce risk of heart disease, it’s important to incorporate each of these exercises into your workout routine.
Here are examples of each exercise type and how to develop a heart-healthy workout plan.
This article was medically reviewed by Joey Thurman, CSCS, CPT, FNS, a Chicago-based fitness expert and MYX Fitness coach.
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Exercising is one of the best ways to keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, which causes 25% of deaths among Americans each year.
At the same time, skipping exercise can increase your risk. For example, it’s estimated that 35% of deaths from coronary heart disease are caused by physical inactivity.
“Even without having risk factors, physical inactivity can lead to heart disease and dying from premature cardiovascular disease,” says Monisha Bhanote, MD, an internist and founder of Integrative Medicine in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
That’s because a lack of exercise can lead to elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, obesity, and type 2 diabetes— all of which are proven to increase a person’s risk for heart disease.
It’s clear that exercise is important for a healthy heart. Here’s which types of exercise are best and how much you need.
Aerobic exercise for heart health
Aerobic exercise is exercise that increases your breathing and heart rate. This is also known as cardiovascular exercise or cardio, because it directly improves your cardiovascular system, which is powered by the heart.
“Aerobic activities will increase your body’s capacity to use oxygen, improve circulation, and lower heart rate,” Bhanote says.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults do a minimum of 150 minutes — 2.5 hours — of moderately intense aerobic exercise each week. Examples include:
If you’re short on time, you can opt for vigorous exercise like running, hiking, or swimming laps, which you only need to do for 75 minutes per week to reap heart health benefits.
Overall, getting the recommended amount of aerobic exercise can improve your heart health — and help prevent heart disease — in the following ways:
Lower blood pressure. A 2017 scientific review published in the journal Medicine found that aerobic exercise led to a significant decrease in blood pressure in people with hypertension. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and can double the risk of sudden cardiac death, according to a 2019 study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.
Strengthen your heart muscle. When you engage in aerobic exercise, your heart works harder to pump blood faster and meet your body’s increased demand for oxygen. This makes your heart stronger and it gets better at pumping blood around the body.
Reduce cardiovascular risk factors. Exercise can help reduce other risk factors for heart disease by helping you lose weight, lower cholesterol, and lower blood sugar.
Strength training for heart health
The American Heart Association recommends that people do moderate- to high-intensity strength training twice a week as part of their minimum of 150 minutes of exercise.
Examples of strength training include:
For maximum impact, celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels, creator of The Jillian Michaels Fitness App, recommends combining strength training with aerobic exercise in so-called circuit training, rather than thinking about them as two separate endeavors.
“Incorporate multiple muscle groups simultaneously, because it burns more calories and it forces the heart to drive blood to different muscle groups which increases cardiovascular conditioning,” Michaels says.
Specifically, strength training can improve your heart health in the following ways:
Building lean muscle. Strength training can build muscle, also known as lean body mass. More muscle reduces risk of high blood pressure, even in obese people, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. “The lean muscle mass ultimately allows less pressure on the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart and other organs,” Bhanote says.
Reducing fat on the heart. A 2019 study in JAMA Cardiology found that resistance training, but not aerobic exercise, reduced pericardial adipose tissue, a type of fat on the heart that is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Stretching for heart health
Although it might be easy to overlook, stretching and increasing flexibility is another important type of exercise recommended by the American Heart Association.
Some types of stretching exercises — particularly yoga — can have a direct impact on heart health by reducing arterial stiffness, or the thickening of the arteries that is linked with high blood pressure and stroke.
For example, a 2020 scientific review published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that yoga was associated with less arterial stiffness in young, healthy people, obese people, and people with high blood pressure. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Yoga also found that yoga may help with weight loss and lowering blood pressure.
Stretching and flexibility training can also make aerobic exercise and strength training easier. “They allow you to perform your aerobic and strength training activities more efficiently by decreasing risk of injury and improving stability,” Bhanote says.
Michaels recommends at least five minutes of stretching five times a week — both before and after your workout.
The bottom line
For optimal heart health, it’s important to try and incorporate all three of these types of exercise into your weekly routine. Michaels recommends using circuit training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) four times a week following this loose routine:
On Monday and Thursday, focus on chest, triceps, shoulders, quads, obliques
On Tuesday and Friday, focus on back, biceps, hamstrings, abs
On days off from strength training, focus on cardio like walking, hiking, or swimming
And sure, while having a personal trainer or gym access is nice, all you really need to do is move your body and find the form of physical activity you enjoy doing.
“Exercise is literally the top form of preventative medicine,” Michaels says. “The bottom line is, if you want to stay healthy, move your body. Consistently.”
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