Heart health is essential for our overall health and well-being and taking care of your heart health becomes increasingly important with age. Heart disease—including coronary artery disease, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia, aortic aneurysm, high blood pressure, and other heart-related illnesses—is the leading cause of death in the world. While many factors go into keeping your heart functioning at its best, exercise is a major one. In this article, we'll discuss the best cardio exercises for heart health.
Exercise and Heart Health
Exercise has many benefits for heart health. Maintaining a regular exercise routine can help:
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve blood circulation
- Maintain healthy body weight
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Lower stress levels
- Reduce inflammation in the body
- Lower your risk of diabetes
- Improve oxygenation of muscles in the body (1)
One of the major benefits of exercise is that it helps to lower many of the major risk factors for heart disease.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's heart disease facts:
"About 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020—that's 1 in every 5 deaths… Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing 382,820 people in 2020." (2)
Clearly, heart health is very important for our overall health and well-being, and since exercise is a major factor in maintaining heart health, it's important that we exercise regularly. Not only does exercise benefit the heart, but our whole body benefits from regular exercise.
Plus, numerous studies have found that people who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer a sudden heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac event. (3)
How Often Should I Exercise to Improve Heart Health?
According to the American Heart Association, the general recommended exercise intensity to prevent cardiovascular diseases is:
"30 minutes, 5 times a week to reach at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 25 minutes 3 times a week to reach at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity" (4)
What Are the Best Exercises for Improving Heart Health?
So, now that we know how important exercise is for heart health and how frequently we should exercise to prevent heart disease, what exactly are the best exercises for heart health?
Though it may seem too simple to be true, walking is actually one of the best exercises you can do to preserve your heart health—and this can include activities like hiking as well. Walking, especially speed walking, is a great way to improve your heart rate and strengthen your heart. It is also much easier on your joints than many other types of physical exercise. Walking is also considered one of the best exercises for heart health because it is something that most people can easily do, regardless of their age. Walking is a great exercise for seniors, which are one of the groups that are at a higher risk for heart disease. Walking is also a good way to burn some calories and manage your weight—which is another major factor for heart disease.
It is no surprise that running is an excellent cardio exercise with many benefits for heart health. Running helps to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, helps you maintain a healthy weight, strengthens the muscles of the heart, and reduces the heart's workload. (5) Running is considered to be a more vigorous exercise, so you can see all of these benefits just by running for 25 minutes three days a week.
Cycling, whether that's riding an actual bike or riding a stationary exercise bike, is another good exercise for heart health. Cycling has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease, elevate your heart rate, and help you burn calories—all of which can play a role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. (6)
Swimming is a great form of exercise that provides many health benefits. Unlike running or other more vigorous forms of exercise, swimming is also very gentle on your joints. Swimming laps in a pool or taking a water aerobics class can be a great full-body workout, a great way to burn calories, and a great way to protect your heart health.
Yoga is another good exercise for heart health. Not only can you burn plenty of calories in a yoga class and improve your circulation, yoga is also a great way to reduce your stress—which is a major risk factor for heart disease. When you're stressed, it can cause your blood pressure to elevate and can also contribute to inflammation in your body. One important factor for reducing your risk of heart disease is managing your stress well. Yoga can help you breathe, let go of your stress, and connect with your body in the present moment. A typical yoga class also involves many great stretching exercises for heart health. Some also offer various breathing exercises for heart health.
6. Weight Training
Weight training helps to preserve heart health by helping you build muscle mass and burn fat. While weight training can involve dumbbells, weight machines, or other weights, you can also weight train effectively using your own body weight. Exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and crunches can all help you build muscle, burn fat and contribute to bone and heart health.
7. Interval Training
Interval training is a type of exercise that involves alternating between short bursts of high-intensity exercise with longer periods of active recovery. For example, you can sprint for one minute, then walk for two or three minutes, and repeat this cycle several times. Studies have shown that interval training helps to burn calories and improve the function of blood vessels due to the continuous raising and lowering of your heart rate. (7)
Other Ways to Improve Heart Health
While exercise is clearly a huge factor in maintaining your heart health, there are several other important factors involved in keeping your heart healthy, such as diet, sleep, stress and lifestyle.
Eating a healthy diet is important for every organ in your body—including your heart. While diet and nutrition is a detailed and complex topic, you can take significant steps to improve your heart health and health overall by:
- Cutting out junk food
- Avoiding refined grains (white bread, white rice, white pasta, etc.)
- Avoiding processed sugar
- Avoiding processed meat (bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, etc.)
- Avoiding high amounts of fat—especially from vegetable or seed oils
- Including more fruits and vegetables in your diet
- Focusing on organic whole foods like whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and organic animal products.
- Drinking plenty of high-quality water throughout the day
Sleep is an important factor for health. According to one recent study following adults for a period of five years, those with the most irregular sleep schedules were nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease as those with more regular sleep patterns. (8) Sleep also plays an important role in managing your stress.
Whenever you experience stress, your body undergoes many physiological changes—your breath becomes more rapid, your heart rate increases, muscles constrict, and your blood pressure rises. These typically return to normal after the stressful event is over, but when someone is under chronic stress, these physiological changes can be prolonged and may begin to have negative effects on their health.
Stress can also contribute to other poor behaviors like smoking, drinking, overeating, eating unhealthy foods, or lack of exercise.
Finding healthy ways to manage your stress is important for your health. Some common stress-relieving activities include:
- Deep breathing
- Spending time outside (hiking, camping, walking, gardening, etc.)
- Spending time with family, friends, or loved ones
- Walking barefoot on natural ground
- Listening to music
- Creating art
Experiment with different stress-relieving activities and find the ones that work best for you.
Our overall lifestyle is perhaps the biggest factor that contributes to our health or illness. Your lifestyle refers to the habits that you perform day after day. Reflect on your daily habits and take note of the habits that contribute to your wellness, and those that contribute to your illness. It is important to observe these without judgment.
Nearly everyone struggles with certain unhealthy habits, but it is important for us to look at how our habits are affecting our health. If we do something unhealthy once or twice, it may have little health consequences, but when we act out unhealthy behaviors day after day, it can begin to significantly impact our health.
Changing old habits and cultivating healthy habits can take work, but it is one of the best ways to improve your health and longevity. Making exercise, good sleep, and healthy diet foundations to your lifestyle will support your heart health and will help you not only live longer but to more fully enjoy your life.