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Living Healthy

How to Improve Heart Health with Exercise

July 19, 2019

You might not always recognize it, but your heart is actually a muscle. And, like other muscles, it grows stronger with exercise. When you boost your activity level, your heart has to work harder to keep up. As it becomes stronger, your heart also becomes more efficient in pumping blood throughout the body. This gets more blood to other muscles and causes oxygen levels in your blood to rise.

Why Exercise Matters

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Every year, more than 500,000 Americans have their first heart attack, according to that agency. And every year more than 200,000 Americans who’ve already had one heart attack have another.

A lack of exercise plays a role in these high numbers — the CDC says physical inactivity is a risk factor for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity 3-4 times a week to maintain a healthy heart. This amount of exercise also helps keep blood pressure and cholesterol in check. And exercise can benefit your heart in other ways, too:

  • Weight control. When paired with a smart diet, exercise can help you lose excess weight — and keep it off. Being overweight puts extra stress on your heart, making it a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
  • Strengthen muscles. Stronger muscles are better able to draw oxygen from the blood. This means the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to keep those muscles healthy.
  • Slow diabetes. With exercise, muscles process blood sugar better, which can slow or stop the development of diabetes. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found the combination of aerobic exercise (like brisk walking or running) and strength training can cut the risk of diabetes in half.
  • Reduce inflammation. The physical challenge of regular exercise can help reduce chronic inflammation throughout the body. It also can help lower stress hormones, like cortisol, that can put a burden on the heart.
How Much Exercise is Enough?

Some health benefits can begin with as little as 60 minutes of exercise a week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, more significant health gains result when people push themselves a little harder. The agency’s latest guidelines, released in 2018, suggest:

  • At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity. This works out to 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week. You can even split this into multiple, smaller sessions to fit your daily schedule.
  • Adding muscle-strengthening activities at least 2 days per week. This can include weight lifting or resistance training with bands or other equipment.
  • Sitting less. Even mild activity is better than sitting.