The heart is a muscle—and as with any muscle, the heart can benefit from exercise. We all hear how important it is to stay active—but are all exercises “created equal” when it comes to your heart? Should everyone perform some form of exercise?
Let’s take the second question first—everyone should stay as physically active as possible but should also consult their healthcare practitioner to determine their level of fitness. At the same time, you know your body best, and as long as you listen to the signals your body is sending, DON’T overdo, begin slowly-and build slowly, you should be fine to start exercising (if you aren’t already doing so). Push the envelope as they say, but don’t rip it open!
The Best Exercises for the Heart
As for the first question, what are the best exercises for the heart? There are three general classes of exercise recommended every BODY. These are:
- Aerobic (oxygen using) exercises are often called “cardio” exercises. These include running, jogging, biking, walking, using stationary cycles or rowing machines and swimming. Swimming and walking generally are good exercises to start with—both are relatively low intensity. After you have been swimming or walking for a while, you can consider moving up the intensity ladder to power walking, jogging, cycling (either moving or stationary) and rowing.
- Stretching exercises should be your “warm-up” for any other activity. This has two goals. The first is to increase or maintain flexibility in your muscles and the second is to help prevent any muscle strain as you do aerobic exercises.
- Strength or Resistance Training makes use of weights, resistance bands or your own weight to strengthen muscles. Yoga is considered strength training as is tai chi and qigong.
How Much and How Often?
The generally accepted recommendation is about 30 minutes a day of moderately-intense activity at least 5 times a week. What does “moderately-intensive” mean? A lot depends on your condition, but as an example, a brisk 30-minute walk on level ground is considered moderately-intensive for many people. Another example might be doing laps in a swimming pool for 30 minutes or do strength/resistance training for 30 minutes. Strength/resistance training is easy to incorporate into your daily life—you can do these while watching TV, while sitting and chatting with people (ask them to join in!). Ideally, you should stretch for at least 10 minutes before and after your activity as well. Stretching improves flexibility and helps prevent muscle damage, strain, sprain and cramping. A good goal is to alternate between strength training days and aerobic/cardio exercise.
While you exercise, pay close attention to how you feel. Stop exercising if you experience chest pain or pressure, have trouble breathing or catching your breath, break out in a cold sweat, feel any heart palpitations or flutters, feel dizzy, nauseous or lightheaded. Your muscles will feel somewhat tired and sore later in the day and/or the next few days if you are new to exercise, but that part should normalize.
Other Tips for Heart Health
The best “tip” of all is to eat healthy, nutritious meals sticking with whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and healthy fats. Whole grains (if tolerated) and high-quality protein are part of a healthy diet. You can exercise to maintain a healthy weight—or to help you lose weight. If you are currently overweight, keep that in mind as you begin an exercise program—and stay positive. It may take a while, but even if you don’t lose weight right away, you are truly doing yourself a healthy favour! Keep in mind that you need to keep yourself hydrated before, during and after exercise.
Good health comes from daily decisions. Besides a healthy diet, a goodnights sleep and daily relaxation from stress is essential. Remember, YOU have the power to transform your health … ONE healthy choice at a time!