Think of exercise as heart health insurance: The American Heart Association recommends four types of physical activity—endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance.
Less heart-damaging plaque: People who regularly exercise have more flexible arteries than those who don’t. When it comes to arteries, flexibility means less heart-damaging plaque build-up.
Reduced workload on your heart: Exercise improves your muscles’ ability to extract oxygen from your blood, which puts fewer demands on your heart.
Lower stress and better mood: Exercise produces endorphins (feel-good chemicals) that you to sleep better at night and reduces heart-damaging stress and stress hormones.
You already know that exercise is good for you. However, you might not know all the ways that physical activity has of keeping your heart strong, and disease-free. Exercise trains your heart to be more resilient. Your heart is the power pump of your body, and it works with multiple systems, including arteries, veins, blood vessels, lungs, and so on. Regular physical activity provides more oxygen and nutrients to your entire body. Because of this intricate connection and relationship with the rest of your body, physical activity that improves health in any area of your body will be good for your heart. Think of exercise as an insurance policy that provides protection for your heart. With that in mind, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the following types of physical activity:
- Endurance exercise: Also called cardio, aerobic, or cardiovascular training. Here you exercise consistently for a set duration of time. The direct and indirect heart-related benefits of endurance activities include decreases in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, insomnia, improved brain function, overweight and obesity, depression, anxiety, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, and diabetes. How much cardio do you need? You can start out with 10 to 15 minutes per day of brisk walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, biking, or playing tennis, basketball, soccer, or racquetball. Work up to 30 to 45 minutes of exercise per session. The AHA recommends a minimum of 150 minutes per week. You may also want to consider including some interval training in your workouts. Some of the latest exercise science suggests that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is especially beneficial to your heart.
- Strength training: Having strong muscles increases your ability to perform everyday activities, protects your body from injury, and helps you to have more physical energy, which helps get you through the day and to still have the drive to do your cardiovascular exercise. Plus, resistance training helps you to gain muscle, which helps your body burn more calories and maintain a healthy weight. Overweight and obesity increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke, according to the American College of Cardiology. The AHA recommends strength training at least two days per week. Strengthening your muscles doesn’t need to include hoisting heavy dumbbells or engaging professional bodybuilding events. You can get plenty of strength by doing simple weight-bearing exercises, by using gym machines, or free weights.
- Flexibility and balance training support your aerobic and strength exercise by helping you to avoid injury, cramping, joint pain, soreness, and more. Regular stretching and balance training increase your range of motion, helping to protect you from falls, sprains, or muscle strains. Some practices, such as yoga or tai chi, incorporate mindfulness to reduce insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, obesity, and improve heart rate, blood pressure, balance, and stability. It’s best to stretch your body when it already warm, which makes it a great way to end your walking, running, or strength training. Stretching to improve your flexibility doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. It’s best to do some stretching and balancing every day. The American Heart Association offers some easy and effective moves here.
- More Heart Benefits from Exercise Flexible arteries, less heart-damaging plaque: People who regularly exercise own more flexible arteries than those who don’t. When it comes to arteries, flexibility means less heart-damaging plaque build-up as well as more plasticity to move around blood clots. A blood clot that cuts off circulation to your heart or your brain is fatal. However, flexible arteries can stretch around a clot, flushing it out without cutting off any vital organs. Why are they more flexible? When you exercise, your lungs demand more air, your cells demand more oxygen, and your arteries and veins pump larger quantities of blood. These larger quantities stretch your arteries from the inside. Arteries naturally stiffen with age, but this can be reduced to a large extent with exercise.
- Better access to oxygen: More oxygen reduces the heart’s workload and helps it to pump more effectively. A fit and well-exercised body has an easier time extracting oxygen from the blood, providing more access to oxygen, pump-for-pump, than a stationary one.
- Lower stress and better mood: But how is that good for your heart? Exercise produces endorphins (feel-good chemicals) and helps you to sleep better at night, which reduces stress and stress hormones. Are you feeling stressed right now? Get up and do 20 jumping jacks. Yep, right now. Feel better? When you take stress and give it a physical outlet, it gives your body a healthy channel to expend energy. When stress hormones such as cortisol are elevated, it can increase the burden on your heart by making it beat at a higher rate than necessary. Regular exercise lowers stress hormones and improves moods. If you feel happier, you’ll also be more likely to eat healthy, limit alcohol, and to exercise—making you and your heart happy.
- Live longer: Oh yeah, there’s that. People who exercise frequently are less likely to die from a sudden heart attack or other fatal heart conditions. Exercise has the unique ability to vitalize and relax you simultaneously. You can start with mental and breathing exercises to reduce stress without even getting out of your chair. This can be especially helpful if you’ve been having trouble starting a physical activity regimen. When you slow your mind by focusing on taking slow, deep breaths, you immediately slow your heart rate and stress hormones. Here are several tips for incorporating mind and breathing exercises.
- Flush bad fats: Exercise will help you to maintain a healthy weight, which elevates your “good “cholesterol, HDL, and lowers the bad: LDL and triglycerides. Plus, overweight exercisers are more likely to have lower cholesterol numbers than those who are sedentary. Researchers still haven’t nailed down exactly why this is, but some speculate that exercise increases the rate that cholesterol is converted into bile and/or excreted.
So what’s the Rx?
You probably already know this drill. Aim to get a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise most days of the week, strength training twice a week on nonconsecutive days, and stretching and balancing three to five days a week.