Why is exercise so good for your heart?

A sedentary lifestyle is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

In fact, about 250,000 deaths in the United States each year are attributed to people not getting enough exercise. Why is regular physical activity so good for your heart health? Gopinath Upamaka, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians, answers some common questions about exercise and your heart.

How does exercise benefit your heart?

Regular exercise has so many benefits. Studies have shown that people who are more active and physically fit are less likely to develop heart disease compared to people in their age group with similar risk factors. And, even if you do develop heart disease due to other risk factors, you will likely develop a less severe case at a later age if you are physically active.

Overall, regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, regulate your blood pressure, keep your cholesterol levels healthy, and help manage other medical conditions, such as diabetes. It doesn’t matter when you start. Even if you’re a late bloomer who hasn’t exercised much, you’ll still benefit from adding physical activity to your day.

To understand the benefits of regular exercise, it helps to first know how the heart works. The heart pumps to send oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the various parts of your body. When you exercise, your blood vessels become wider, allowing blood to flow better. When you exercise, your muscles (including your heart) get stronger. They learn how to use oxygen more efficiently. This puts less strain on the heart itself even when you’re just doing everyday activities.

What kind of exercise is best for your heart?

Most activity can be divided into aerobic and anaerobic exercise. In aerobic exercise, such as walking and cycling, oxygen is used to fuel the muscles. In anaerobic exercise, such as weight lifting and sprinting, muscles are deprived of oxygen and must use sugar for energy. This tires your muscles quickly, which is why anaerobic exercises are done at a higher intensity for a shorter amount of time.

From a heart health perspective, aerobic exercise is better. It allows your heart rate to increase gently and teaches your heart how to take an increasing demand. When performing aerobic exercise, aim to gently take your heart rate to about 60-75% of your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is typically 220 minus your age. So, for a 30-year old individual, the maximum heart rate would be 190 (220-30 =190). The target heart rate for aerobic exercise would be about 142 (75% of 190). This trains your heart to warm up, perform the exercise and then go back to its normal state.

Anaerobic exercise actually releases a chemical called lactic acid, which can be unhealthy for your heart in large amounts. But anaerobic exercise also has benefits, such as muscle strengthening. That’s why the American Heart Association recommends combining aerobic and anaerobic exercise into your fitness routine.

High intensity intermittent (or interval) training, also known as HIIT, has benefits for your heart as well. The technique uses short, but intense bursts of aerobic and anaerobic activity. It keeps your heart rate up during the workout, helps burn fat and helps increase your resting metabolic rate.

Is exercise safe for people with heart conditions?

Many of us have heard stories about people who collapsed or even died unexpectedly while exercising. Truthfully, the risk of dying from a heart condition while exercising is very rare. In fact, exercise has been shown to improve the health of those with heart conditions and irregular heart rhythms. Even patients with the most advanced heart disease feel better, live longer and have fewer future complications thanks to exercise.

If you have any concerns about your health, have high blood pressure or other existing conditions, or you are a smoker, talk with your doctor before starting your exercise program. A doctor can help ensure that you are exercising safely.

How much should someone exercise?

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (or a combination of both), spread throughout the week.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a large chunk of time to exercise each day. You can split up your workout time throughout the day and still receive the benefits. Walking at a brisk pace for 15 minutes in the morning and another 15 minutes in the evening offers the same benefits of walking at a brisk pace for 30 minutes. Walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, and doing yard work are all examples of aerobic exercise that will help strengthen your heart.

It may also be encouraging to know that you don’t have to go out and run a 5K in order to have good heart health. In fact, the biggest improvement usually occurs when people make that first step to add regular exercise to their sedentary lifestyle. In addition to the benefits to your heart, most people see benefits in their quality of life from this first step. They have more energy during the day, they sleep better, they eat better, and they have better stress management. Other parts in your life tend to fall into place when you put fitness first.

Learn more about heart health and heart care on ProMedica’s website.