Medical Learning Library

Exercise and the Heart- What Works Best?

Exercise and the Heart- What Works Best?


The best exercise programs for heart health are those that are aerobic. These activities present benefits for both healthy individuals and those with cardiovascular problems.

Low-impact to moderate exercise can improve chronic conditions as well as increase longevity. Avoid stressful or extreme activities because of the possible damage it may have on the heart.

Read on to learn more about heart-smart exercise.

Heart-Healthy Exercises

Of the many different activity types available, aerobic exercise is thought to have the highest effect in reversing heart disease—this is because aerobic exercise requires continuous movement to raise the heart rate to a particular level for a length of time, which keeps the heart working.

Aerobic activities include walking, swimming, jogging, and riding a bicycle. In addition to increasing heart rate, these exercises also contribute to the body’s efficient use of oxygen and help the lungs and circulatory systems work.

For overall cardiovascular health the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends:

  • 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) each week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (fast walking or tennis)
  • 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) each week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (jogging or swimming)
  • An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity
  • Do the aerobic physical activity in episodes of at least 10 minutes and, if possible, spread it out through the week.

For even greater heart-health benefits, do one of the following:

  • Increase moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes (5 hours) each week
  • Increase vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity for 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) each week
  • Do muscle-strengthening activities (lifting weights or using resistance bands) that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.

Heart health can show significant improvements with just half an hour of exercise a day. An exercise regime can keep the heart functioning optimally and deter the incidence or progression of some diseases and disorders. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other conditions can be managed and even reversed with the adoption of an aerobic exercise program.

Low-impact exercises, like aerobics or swimming, can be especially beneficial to those with cardiovascular disease. Activities that allow patients to warm-up, condition, and cool down during training programs may present the best results.

Risks of Physical Activity

Excessive high endurance exercises have been shown to have an adverse effect on cardiac health. A study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings Journal reveals potential adverse cardiovascular effects from excessive endurance exercise—this suggests that extreme exercise is not healthy for the heart.

While individuals may think that working the heart as much as possible may improve heart health, overworking the heart is possible because the heart cannot regenerate itself. Marathon runners, for example, have been shown to have a significant increase of heart enzymes which are present in the bodies of individuals who are at risk of suffering heart attacks. The heart has limits, so it would be prudent, when devising exercise programs, to adopt moderate exercise into regimes.

NIH Risks of Physical Activity

Keep Moving for Heart Health

Dr. Bill Haskell, chair of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, explains that, “previously sedentary individuals achieve health benefits from any amount of physical activity, even when not meeting the Guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week.”

The findings of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 imply that exercise endurance is a key predictor of long life. The study monitored several men, with and without heart disease, cataloged their health conditions and exercise habits. After ten years, those who reached and maintained physical fitness were less likely to pass away sooner. This indicator is one reason why heart healthy exercise is important and is encouraged even in patients who have undergone heart surgery. With exercise comes a healthy heart and with cardiac health comes a long life.

Individuals with cardiovascular diseases or suspicion of heart problems should discuss potential exercise plans with their doctors. Physicians may be able to take patients’ personal and medical histories into account before suggesting workouts that complement stamina and medical regime. Doctors may also elect to perform stress or echo tests to determine if exercise is safe.

Exercise and Heart-Healthly Resources

How much exercise is optimal for heart health?

Diet and Exercise for a Healthy Heart

University of Maryland Medical Center: Exercises

Safe Exercise for Patients with Heart Disease

British Heart Foundation: Staying Active

Exercise Helps Your Heart

Aerobic Exercise Intensity and Target Heart Rate

Can Too Much Exercise Harm Your Heart

Love Your Heart

It’s Settled: Long-term Extreme Endurance Exercise Is Not Heart Healthy

Exercise for Health Heart

Written by and last updated Apr 19, 2017

Sarah has worked in various roles at Coffee Medical Center including nurse, education director, and quality assurance director.

Was this article helpful?