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7 Heart Benefits of Exercise

Did you know that physical activity can be as beneficial to your heart as medication in many cases? A Johns Hopkins expert covers the powerful benefits and how you can make staying active part of your heart-protection plan.

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Move More for Heart Benefits

How can you fit more exercise into your day, or become more physically active if you haven’t been before? Begin with small starts like these, and build up from there.

  • Park your car at the far end of a parking lot, so you have farther to walk to a building's entrance.
  • Choose the stairs rather than the elevator.
  • Spend part of your lunch break walking.
  • On bad-weather days, try walking indoors at a mall.
  • Wake up a bit earlier and exercise before you do anything else.
  • Use a wearable fitness tracker to count your steps. Try increasing your daily steps by 500 each week with the goal of reaching 10,000 steps per day, a level that can produce many health benefits.

One of the very best gifts you can give your heart is physical activity. In fact, pairing regular exercise with a Mediterranean-style diet, maintaining a normal weight and not smoking is a great protection plan against coronary artery disease and vascular disease, Johns Hopkins research has found. 

Not convinced such simple steps could be so powerful? These four lifestyle factors reduced the chance of death from all causes by 80 percent over the eight-year period that more than 6,200 subjects were tracked.

“For certain heart conditions, exercise can be as powerful as some medications,” says Johns Hopkins expert Kerry Stewart, Ed.D.

Understanding just how physical activity benefits your heart can be strong motivation to get moving more. Here’s what to know.

1. Exercise lowers blood pressure.

Exercise works like beta-blocker medication to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure (at rest and also when exercising). High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease.

2. Exercise is key to weight control.

Especially when combined with a smart diet, being physically active is an essential component for losing weight and even more important for keeping it off, Stewart says—which in turn helps optimize heart health. Being overweight puts stress on the heart and is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

3. Exercise helps strengthen muscles.

A combination of aerobic workouts (which, depending on your fitness level, can include walking, running, swimming, and other vigorous heart-pumping exercise) and strength training (weight lifting, resistance training) is considered best for heart health. These exercises improve the muscles’ ability to draw oxygen from the circulating blood. That reduces the need for the heart—a muscular organ itself—to work harder to pump more blood to the muscles, whatever your age.

4. Exercise can help you quit smoking.

As smokers become more fit, they often quit. And people who are fit in the first place are less likely to ever start smoking, which is one of the top risk factors for heart disease because it damages the structure and function of blood vessels. 

5. Exercise can stop or slow the development of diabetes.

Johns Hopkins research has shown that when combined with strength training, regular aerobic  exercise such as cycling, brisk walking, or swimming  can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by over 50% by allowing the muscles to better process glycogen, a fuel for energy, which when impaired, leads to excessive blood sugars, and thus diabetes.  

6. Exercise lowers stress.

Stress hormones can put an extra burden on the heart. Exercise—whether aerobic (like running), resistance-oriented (like weight training) or flexibility-focused (like yoga)—can help you relax and ease stress. 

7. Exercise reduces inflammation.

With regular exercise, chronic inflammation is reduced as the body adapts to the challenge of exercise on many bodily systems. This is an important factor for reducing the adverse effects of many of the diseases just mentioned.

Definitions

Risk factor: Anything that boosts your chances of getting a disease. For example, smoking is a risk factor for cancer, and obesity is a risk factor for diabetes.
Mediterranean diet: Traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and dementia. On the menu: Plenty of fruits, vegetables and beans, along with olive oil, nuts, whole grains, seafood; moderate amounts of low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese and poultry; small amounts of red meat and sweets; and wine, in moderation, with meals.
Inflammation (in-fluh-mey-shun): The redness and warmth around a cut or scrape is short-term inflammation, produced by the immune system to aid healing. But another type called chronic inflammation, triggered by compounds from abdominal fat, gum disease and other factors, lingers in the body. Research suggests this type increases the risk for heart disease, diabetes, dementia and some forms of cancer.

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