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Give your heart a workout

Being physically active is one of the best things you can do for your heart. Regular exercise helps reduce your risk of heart disease and adds years to your life.

You don't need to spend hours in the gym every day to see benefits. Moving your body just 30 minutes a day is enough to improve your heart health.

If you have diabetes or heart disease, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

The benefits of exercise

Exercise helps your heart in a few ways.

  • Burns calories. This can help you lose extra pounds or stay at a healthy weight. Being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Lowers blood pressure. Doing some type of moderate aerobic exercise, for 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week, can help lower blood pressure. High blood pressure is another major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Reduces stress. Regular exercise is a proven stress buster. Experts aren't sure if stress plays a direct role in heart disease. But it may contribute to other risk factors.
  • Lowers cholesterol. Exercise can lower your LDL ("bad" cholesterol level). A high LDL level is a major risk factor for heart disease.

The best activities for your heart

When done properly, any kind of exercise can be good for your body. But aerobic exercise is the best type for your heart. Aerobic exercise is any activity that uses the large muscles in your body and gets your heart beating faster.

To benefit your heart, experts recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise on most days. This is about 2.5 hours a week. You can also break this up into a few 10- or 15-minute sessions each day. Moderate aerobic exercises include:

  • Dancing
  • Hiking on flat ground
  • Bicycling at less than 10 mph
  • Moderate walking (about 3.5 mph)
  • Golf (not using a cart)
  • Downhill skiing
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • Softball
  • Swimming
  • Gardening
  • Light yard work

For even more heart benefits, consider adding some vigorous activity to your week. If all your exercise is vigorous, aim to get at least 75 minutes each week. Vigorous aerobic exercises include:

  • Brisk walking (about 4.5 mph)
  • Bicycling at more than 10 mph
  • Hiking uphill
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Stair climbing
  • Soccer
  • Jogging
  • Jumping rope
  • Tennis (singles)
  • Basketball
  • Heavy yard work

Track the intensity of your workout

You can tell if your workout is moderate or vigorous by paying attention to how your body feels while you exercise.

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale ranks exertion from 6 to 20. During exercise, choose the number that best describes how hard you are working.

  • 6 = No exertion
  • 7 = Extremely light
  • 8
  • 9 = Very light, such as slow walking or easy chores
  • 10
  • 11 = Light
  • 12
  • 13 = Somewhat hard, requires effort but doesn't make you out of breath
  • 14
  • 15 = Hard
  • 16
  • 17 = Very hard, you really have to push yourself
  • 18
  • 19 = Extremely hard, the highest level of exercise you can keep up
  • 20 = Maximal exertion

A moderate level of exercise is usually from 12 to 14. Vigorous exercise is usually a 15 or higher. You can adjust the level of your workout by slowing down or speeding up.

Track your target heart rate

To see the direct effects of exercise on your heart, track your target heart rate, which is about 50 to 85% of your maximum heart rate, based on your age. This range gives your heart the most benefit.

To find your target heart rate:

  • Take a brief break from exercising to take your pulse. To measure your pulse at the wrist, place your index and middle fingers on the inside of your opposite wrist, below the base of the thumb. To measure your pulse at the neck, place your index and middle fingers to the side of the Adam's apple.
  • Count the number of beats you feel for 10 seconds.
  • Multiply this number by 6 to give you the beats per minute.
  • Find your age and target heart rate:
    • 20 years old -- 100 to 170 beats per minute
    • 30 years old -- 95 to 162 beats per minute
    • 35 years old -- 93 to 157 beats per minute
    • 40 years old -- 90 to 153 beats per minute
    • 45 years old -- 88 to 149 beats per minute
    • 50 years old -- 85 to 145 beats per minute
    • 55 years old -- 83 to 140 beats per minute
    • 60 years old -- 80 to 136 beats per minute
    • 65 years old -- 78 to 132 beats per minute
    • 70 years old -- 75 to 128 beats per minute
  • To find your approximate maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.

For moderate intensity exercise, your target heart rate should be 50 to 70% of your maximum heart rate.

For vigorous exercise, your target heart rate should be 70 to 85% of your maximum heart rate.

When you first start exercising, aim for the lower number for your age range. As you get fitter, you can slowly work towards the higher number.

If your heart rate is lower than your target heart rate, you may not be exercising hard enough to benefit your heart. If your heart rate is higher than your target, you may be exercising too hard.

Some blood pressure medicines can lower your target heart rate. If you take medicine for high blood pressure, ask your doctor what range is healthy for you.

When to call the doctor

If it's been a while since you were active, you should check with your doctor before starting any new activity. Also, to make sure you are healthy enough for exercise, check with your doctor if you have:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • A heart condition
  • Another health problem

Alternative Names

Exercise - heart workout

References

American College of Sports Medicine. Perceived Exertion. http://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/perceivedexertion.pdf.Accessed April 1, 2014.American College of Sports Medicine. Perceived Exertion. http://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/perceivedexertion.pdf. Accessed April 1, 2014.

American Heart Association. Stress and Heart Health. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/StressManagement/HowDoesStressAffectYou/Stress-and-Heart-Health_UCM_437370_Article.jsp.Updated June 13, 2014. Accessed October 10, 2014.American Heart Association. Stress and Heart Health. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/StressManagement/HowDoesStressAffectYou/Stress-and-Heart-Health_UCM_437370_Article.jsp. Updated June 13, 2014. Accessed October 10, 2014.

American Heart Association. Target Heart Rates. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/Target-Heart-Rates_UCM_434341_Article.jsp.Updated September 23, 2014. Accessed October 10, 2014.American Heart Association. Target Heart Rates. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/Target-Heart-Rates_UCM_434341_Article.jsp. Updated September 23, 2014. Accessed October 10, 2014.

Centers for Disease Control. Perceived Exertion (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale). http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/measuring/exertion.html.Updated March 30, 2011. Accessed April 1, 2014.Centers for Disease Control. Perceived Exertion (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale). http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/measuring/exertion.html. Updated March 30, 2011. Accessed April 1, 2014.

Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, de Jesus JM, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63:2960-2984.

Mellett, LH and Bousquet, G. Heart-Healthy Exercise. Circulation. 2013;127:e571-e572.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Is High Blood Cholesterol Treated? http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc/treatment.html.September 19, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2014.National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Is High Blood Cholesterol Treated? http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc/treatment.html. September 19, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2014.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/phy_active.pdf.Accessed April 1, 2014.National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/phy_active.pdf. Accessed April 1, 2014.

Stone, NJ, Robinson J Lichtenstein AH, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Treatment of Blood Cholesterol to Reduce Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Risk in Adults: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation. Published online November 12, 2013.

Update Date 5/18/2014

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.