The Heart Health Benefits of Exercise

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health, Heart Health Principles
Last Reviewed 02/24/2014

The Heart Health Benefits of Exercise

You can’t talk to a cardiologist about key strategies for maintaining a healthy heart and not expect to hear about the health benefits of exercise! On this topic, I have to admit that I'm like most doctors: I believe exercise is absolutely essential if you want to keep your heart and body functioning at their best. If you don't believe me, check out this list of benefits of regular exercise.

Health Benefits of Exercise

  • You'll keep your heart healthy. Inactivity is the single most prevalent risk factor for heart disease.

  • You'll lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

  • You'll reduce your risk of cancer and stroke.

  • You'll be less constipated.

  • You'll improve arthritis symptoms. Increased muscle strength restores range of motion and flexibility and reduces pain.

  • You'll slim down. When you do aerobic exercise, you rev up your metabolism and burn calories.

  • You'll beat the blues. Studies show that aerobic exercise is a quicker mood elevator than antidepressants.

  • Your blood sugar will decrease, and your body's ability to use insulin will increase, preventing insulin resistance and diabetes.

  • You'll age more gracefully. When flexibility, bone mass and muscle tone improve, you look and act younger.

  • You'll sleep like a baby. Not only will you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply, your concentration and memory will improve and you'll stay on a more even keel emotionally.

  • You'll feel more amorous. Exercise not only increases growth hormone, a potent anti-aging hormone, it also improves body image, making you feel better about yourself.

My Two Favorite Forms of Exercise for Heart Health

When patients ask me what kind of exercise is best to maintain a healthy heart, my answer is always the same: "The kind you'll keep doing day in and day out."

Honestly, it doesn't matter what kind of exercise you do. The important thing is that you find a way to be active and then enjoy yourself, without worrying about whether you're working "hard enough." My favorite ways to exercise and maintain heart health are walking and dancing. They're easy and virtually anyone can do them!

Walking. The heart health benefits of walking make it an exercise for all ages. A mile of walking, at any speed, burns as many calories as a mile of running, and I’ve rarely heard of people injuring muscles, ligaments or joints while walking. If you haven’t been active for a while, start out easy by walking for just 10 minutes a day. Your goal should be to add five minutes a week, building up to 30 minutes of walking total, five days a week. And remember, you don't have to maintain a brisk pace.

You see, actual walking speed isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe. In a two-week Dutch study reported in the journal Nature,researchers found that moderate activity was actually superior to vigorous exercise for expending energy. However, if you want to use a heart-rate monitor to pace yourself, that's great—but go no higher than 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. To get a rough idea of your maximal heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Multiply the answer by 0.70; the result is your target heart rate.

Dancing. Dancing reduces stress, and you don’t have to work up a sweat or push yourself until you’re out of breath to get heart-health benefits from this dynamic exercise. Dancing also enhances your well-being and can give you a happier outlook. You can easily create an exercise session by adding a bit of stretching, yoga and weight training.

To start, put on music, warm up with a good stretch and some deep breathing and then dance for 10 to 15 minutes. Add in some free weights and finish with yoga and stretching exercises to cool down.

Just One Caveat

If you haven’t exercised or been active for a long time, I do recommend talking to your doctor before beginning an exercise program. He or she may want you to take a treadmill stress test and give you a specific exercise prescription suited to your health status and current level of conditioning. And always be alert to warning signs that you may be exercising too hard or too much.

More Dr. Sinatra Advice on the Heart Health Benefits of Exercise

What special supplements do you need for heart health if you are an avid exerciser? Find out which antioxidant supplements you should take if you exercise a lot.

Should you run instead of walk to maintain optimal heart health? Learn why running is not the most heart-healthy exercise option.

How does weight training boost heart health? Discover the blood pressure-lowering benefits of weight training and get tips on how to start a weight-training program for a healthy heart.

Read questions and answers about the Principles of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

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