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School of Medicine
6 Heart Benefits of Exercise
Did you know that physical activity can be as beneficial to your heart as medication in some cases? A Johns Hopkins expert covers the powerful benefits and how you can make staying active part of your heart-protection plan.
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 (when one is not actively 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 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 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, weekly exercise on a bike or treadmill or a brisk walk may cut levels of fat in the liver by up to 40 percent in people with diabetes. A fatty liver can speed heart disease. Exercise also reduces inflammation, a process that can lead to cell damage.
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.
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 legumes, along with olive oil, nuts, whole grains, seafood; moderate amounts of yogurt, cheese, poultry and eggs; 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.