ABCs of Moving More for Heart Health

Keeping physically active works wonders for your overall health in many ways—and your heart in particular.

Exercise lowers blood pressure and improves blood cholesterol, for example, which directly impacts the condition of your arteries. It reduces the risk of diabetes , one of the leading risk factors for heart disease. And along with a heart-healthy diet, physical activity makes it much easier to maintain a healthy weight, says Johns Hopkins professor of medicine and exercise physiologist Kerry J. Stewart, Ed.D. 

man weight training at gym

“There are plenty of data that show exercise is as powerful as some medications for many conditions,” he says. What’s more, being active is as easy as ABC.

A. Aim for 150 minutes of exercise a week.

To benefit the heart, most adults should try to get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise. Ideally, you should exercise most days of the week, Stewart says. That could be 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for example. But your heart also benefits from shorter bursts of activity, say 10 to 15 minutes at a stretch, with the goal of accumulating 150 minutes a week.

“The recommendation to exercise 150 minutes per week is the minimum needed and considered safe for most people, but it’s simply a guideline,” Stewart says. “Don’t expect to do it all the first month or you’ll become frustrated and quit.” Slow but steady will take you far—by building up gradually, you’re more likely to reach the goal of making exercise a lifelong habit.

B. Before you start, ask your doctor.

Most healthy people can begin a moderate intensity exercise program with medical clearance. However, if you have a history of a chronic disease such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease or cancer, among other conditions, you should speak to your doctor first to be sure that you are cleared for exercise.

Also, check with your doctor if you have a strong family history of heart disease; have multiple risk factors such as high blood pressure or cholesterol ; or experience symptoms with exertion such as chest pain, unusual fatigue or shortness of breath, or exercise-limiting joint and muscle problems.

Even if you have a medical history or are at risk for health problems, most people will still be able to do some exercise, Stewart says. The key is making sure that the level of exercise you undertake is appropriate for your health status to assure safety and to make sure you work hard enough within limits to gain the health benefits of activity.

C. Chart your efforts.

Pay attention to your body as you work out. With any type of exercise, you want to feel your heart pumping—but there should be no chest pain or pressure, and no extreme shortness of breath when you finish. Stop immediately if you’re concerned, and tell your doctor what you experienced.

Tracking your progress over the long-term helps too. Many people find it useful to keep an exercise log or wear a tracking device, Stewart says. As you see yourself getting stronger and being able to do more, reflecting on your advances can be a strong motivator to help you keep up the great results—and keep on improving.

D. Do different types of exercise.

In addition to 150 minutes of heart-pumping aerobic work, exercise guidelines recommend muscle-strengthening activities like lifting weights and resistance training.

Aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, jogging and cycling, primarily improves the heart and circulation, whereas resistance exercise improves muscle strength, maintains higher levels of muscle tissue and can help strengthen the bones. Both types of exercise help the body better process blood sugar and can improve cholesterol levels.

In addition, it’s wise to make time for a third type of exercise: flexibility (stretching and balance). “Flexibility training doesn’t directly affect heart health,” Stewart says, “but it does help you to avoid injuries and falls and be better able to do the aerobic and resistance exercises you need.”

E. Exercise in ways you love.

You don’t have to join a gym to move more, Stewart says. Many people find both pleasure and success simply by walking—gradually working up to 10,000 steps per day. Most inactive people generally walk about 2,500 to 3,000 steps a day.

A good strategy is to try to increase your number of daily steps by 500 each week until you reach 10,000 a day. Think about what you enjoy that involves moving: Dancing? Playing a team sport? Walking and talking with a friend? “If you find an activity you like, you’ll be more likely to stick with it,” Stewart says.

And remember, any type of physical activity that gets your body moving and your heart pumping will bring better health. Everyday things like doing chores, walking the dog and climbing stairs count too.

Try It Replace Bad Habits with Good Exercise Habits

“Your goal should be to make exercise a regular habit over time,” says Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry K. Stewart, Ed.D. The more you can stick with it, the easier that is. Making physical activity pleasurable is a good way to start. Try switching up some of your regular habits. For instance:

If you usually sit down after dinner , try taking a walk in the neighborhood, around your yard, or up and down a staircase instead.

If you flop on the sofa and watch TV in the evening , try following along with an exercise video for 30 minutes first.

If you tend to socialize with friends at bars and restaurants , try meeting them for a weekly Saturday walk in the park or joining a gym or team sport together.

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