Keeping your heart happy is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Every 36 seconds, someone in the U.S. dies from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It’s the leading cause of death in our country, accounting for one in every four deaths. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are four pillars of a heart-healthy lifestyle, according to the CDC: eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and getting regular exercise. To exercise for heart health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week, plus at least two days of moderate-to-intense strength training.
Like any muscle, your heart gets stronger and more fit if you work out on a consistent basis. “Exercise improves the heart’s ability to deliver blood and oxygen to tissue and organs,” Leda Ghannad, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Rush University Medical Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com. “It also increases muscle mass and decreases weight, which are linked to a reduced risk of cardiac conditions.”
In addition, your heart responds to exercise by building new arteries and capillaries. “This prevents heart attacks, lowers cholesterol and helps with glucose regulation,” Jonathan Drezner, MD, a sports medicine and sports cardiologist specialist at UW Medicine, tells LIVESTRONG.com. “Another benefit is that physically active folks have a lower resting heart rate because their heart can pump out more blood with every contraction.” This is a sign of a more efficient ticker.
While any kind of physical activity offers cardio benefits, some forms are particularly effective. The next time you get your heart pumping, consider trying one of the best exercises for heart health listed below.
“If you are older or have a heart condition, check in with your primary care physician before you start a new workout routine, especially one that is vigorous,” Dr. Drezner says. (If you can’t afford health care, you can find low-cost options in your community through HealthCare.gov.)
To take care of your heart, lace up your sneakers and hit the pavement. A large August 2015 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that, compared to non-runners, runners had a 30 percent lower risk of early death from any cause and a 45 percent lower risk of early death from heart disease. Even jogging just 5 to 10 minutes a day at speeds less than 6 miles per hour is linked with a lower risk of death from heart disease.
“Running gives you the most bang for your buck in terms of increasing your heart rate and getting an intense workout in a short period of time,” Dr. Ghannad says. “You would have to walk for twice the amount of time in order to get the same benefits as going for a run.”
Ballroom, Latin, Zumba, hip-hop — you can dance your way to a healthy heart with any style or routine. A large June 2016 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine linked moderate-intensity dancing with a lower risk for early death from heart disease. Part of the reason for that: Folks who dance tend to stick with it for life, magnifying the long-term health benefits.
Dance also offers psychosocial benefits — such as improved mood, confidence and relationship building — which are also tied to improved heart health, per a January 2021 study in Circulation.
Finally, dance usually includes bouts of intense activity, which has a bigger payoff for your heart. “There are a lot of cardiovascular benefits to [doing both] moderate and vigorous activity,” Dr. Drezner says.
Channel your inner Federer for your heart. According to a May 2017 British Journal of Sports Medicine study, racket sports (including tennis, badminton and squash) are linked to lower risk of early death from a cardiovascular event, making it one of the best forms of exercise for heart health.
“Racket sports are high in intensity and engage many different muscle groups,” Dr. Drezner says. “As a result, your heart works harder to pump blood throughout your body.” The harder your heart works, the stronger it gets.
While it’s no secret that aerobic activity does wonders for your heart, a resistance-training routine has unique perks that make it one of the best forms of exercise for heart health.
A July 2020 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found people who did weight training on the regular had a 40 to 70 percent lower risk of heart disease than people who did not weight training. Even just an hour per week was linked to benefits.
“Resistance training is more likely than aerobic training to decrease fat mass and increase muscle mass, which is related to a decreased risk of diabetes and lower blood pressure,” Dr. Ghannad says. Case in point: According to a small July 2019 JAMA study of adults with obesity, strength training in particular reduced a specific type of fat surrounding the heart that is associated with heart disease.
And in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t matter if you opt for weight machines (a good bet for beginners), free weights, resistance bands or body-weight exercises. “The outcome on the heart is similar,” Dr. Ghannad says.
For optimal heart health, make time for both aerobic and resistance training. A combo of endurance and resistance work will give you better results than spending an equal amount of time on cardio or strength training alone, according to a January 2019 study in PLOS One.
Especially if you’re new to exercise or have an existing heart condition, walking could be just what the cardiologist ordered. A May 2019 study in Preventing Chronic Disease linked walking with a lower risk of heart disease. “Walking is also great if you are older or have joint issues that prohibit running, because it is low impact,” Dr. Ghannad says.
While any kind of walking will benefit you, July 2018 research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that the speedier your stride, the better the results. So if you’re up for it, turn that leisurely stroll into a power walk. If you can’t, you’re still doing great things for your heart by moving.
“You get 80 to 90 percent of all potential heart benefits just going from sedentary to walking,” Dr. Drezner says. “The last 10 to 20 percent you get from increasing the intensity — but the incremental benefits are small.”
Cycling is one of the best exercises you can do for heart health. And turns out, any form of cycling seems to be associated with lower heart disease risk, per May 2019 research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
It’s also a great option for those who can’t (or don’t want to) run. “Cycling can increase your heart rate just as much as running, but it is low impact so it irritates the joints less,” Dr. Ghannad says. “Plus, almost anybody can do it — though if you are new to biking or live in a big city, it’s safer to stick to a stationary bike.”
“Yoga and tai chi are very good for older adults or those with a history of heart disease who can’t handle strenuous workouts,” Dr. Ghannad says. “They are less stressful to the heart, but still increase muscle mass and decrease blood pressure.”
In fact, May 2019 research in the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention suggests yoga improves heart disease risk factors, including blood pressure, heart rate, obesity and cholesterol levels. Part of that may be due to the relaxing effects of meditation.
“Many yoga poses involve isometric exercise, where you contract and hold a muscle for a short while,” Dr. Drezner says. “Isometric exercise is one of the best ways to lower your blood pressure, which has direct benefits for the heart.”
Meanwhile, a small October 2019 study in Medicine of people with obesity over 50 found tai chi prevented heart disease and improved heart and lung function.
“Just keep in mind that yoga and tai chi don’t get your heart rate up as high as vigorous exercise,” Dr. Ghannad says. “So you will have to do them for a longer period of time in order to see benefits for your heart.”
If you want to be your heart’s BFF, hit up a HIIT workout. “HIIT allows people to increase their heart rate rapidly over a short period of time,” Dr. Ghannad says. “The results are similar to running, but it is more tolerable.”
In fact, the latest research suggests that it doesn’t take much to reap these amazing benefits. A March 2021 study in The Journal of Physiology found that less than 15 minutes (that’s what makes it “low-volume) of high-intensity activity per session keeps your heart happy.
At times, shorter bouts may even be better at improving cardio fitness, blood sugar control, blood pressure and heart function compared to longer durations of HIIT or moderate-intensity continuous training (like a steady-pace walk or jog).
Get even better results with these expert-recommended ideas.
1. Spread Out Your Exercise
Instead of doing one or two long workouts each week, break up movement into bite-sized chunks. For example, take a 15-minute walk every morning and evening. “People who are active throughout the day are less likely to have cardiac complications,” Dr. Ghannad says.
Do you hate hopping on the treadmill or find yourself repeatedly pressing snooze to avoid cycling class? “It is so important to find something you enjoy, because you will be more likely to stick with it,” Dr. Ghannad says. The best exercise for heart health is the one you’ll do consistently.
“Research has found people who participate in group workout classes or team sports get more exercise and improve their mental health more than people who exercise solo,” Dr. Drezner says. So, take a class where you’ll be surrounded by other people getting active, or find a workout buddy to join you on your walks or runs.
At the end of the day, any kind of physical activity is linked with a lower risk of heart disease — and the more active you are, the stronger that associationfalls, per a large January 2021 study in PLOS One.
“The most important message is that any form or amount of exercise is good,” Dr. Drezner says. “It is our best medicine to keep our heart, body and mind healthy.” The upshot: Even if you can only squeeze in a brief walk, it’s always worth it.