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Exercises To Strengthen Your Heart
By Balaguru Ravi, MD, CAQSM
It’s no secret that regular exercise is key to maintaining a healthy heart. But what kinds of exercises provide the most benefit to your heart, and how much of each type do you need?
Exercise is generally grouped into three buckets; you need all three to obtain and maintain optimum cardiovascular health.
- Aerobic exercise (heart-pumping activities)
- Strength or resistance training
- Stretching, flexibility, and balance
Aerobic exercise literally means “with oxygen” because your breathing controls the amount of oxygen delivered to your muscles, which helps them move and burn fuel.
Brisk walking, jumping rope, swimming, and running are all examples of “aerobic” exercises. There is no doubt that these types of aerobic exercises are beneficial to your heart because they provide cardiovascular conditioning.
In addition to cardiovascular conditioning, aerobic exercise delivers several other heart-healthy benefits:
- Lowering blood pressure – When your heart is made stronger by regular exercise, it can pump blood more effectively, which decreases the force on your arteries, reducing both your systolic and diastolic readings.
- Decreasing LDL or “bad cholesterol” while increasing HDL or “good cholesterol” – When you are physically active, you get rid of harmful cholesterol while increasing the amount of beneficial cholesterol, which can protect you from developing heart disease.
- Managing blood sugar more effectively – If you have Type 2 diabetes or are at risk of developing it, exercise increases insulin sensitivity. When your muscles contract during physical activity, your cells can use glucose for energy.
- Improving lung function – When you engage in aerobic exercise, your heart and lungs both work to deliver oxygen to the muscles used. This strengthens the tissue around your lungs and improves their overall function.
- Maintaining weight or helping with weight loss efforts – No matter if you are trying to maintain your weight or lose a few pounds, aerobic exercise helps burn calories. Keeping excess weight off is beneficial to your heart in so many ways, helping you avoid straining the heart and prevent chronic conditions that over time weaken the heart.
- Decreasing your resting heart rate – Because exercise strengthens your heart muscle, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard while at rest. This reduces your resting heart rate to fewer heartbeats per minute.
You should aim to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day to keep your heart in tip-top shape.
Strength or resistance training
Strength or resistance exercises are also important to heart health because they create lean muscle mass. Doing so puts less pressure on your arteries and decreases your overall risk of developing heart disease and other cardiovascular issues.
Strength or resistance training includes using free weights (hand weights, dumbbells, or barbells), weight machines, resistance bands, or doing pushups, squats, or chin-ups.
When you engage in strength or resistance training, you may experience several heart-healthy benefits, including:
- Improved circulation – Circulation means you have good blood flow, ensuring that all parts of your body receive the oxygen and nutrients the need.
- Reduced belly fat – Belly fat is also known as visceral fat and can be found around your internal organs, including your heart. Engaging in weightlifting and other strength-training exercises can result in less belly fat, positively impacting your heart.
- Increased quality of sleep – Sleep and cardiovascular health go hand in hand. Poor or too little sleep can trigger inflammation that can cause cellular damage to your cardiovascular system. Participating in resistance training can result in post-workout fatigue, promoting a better night’s rest.
On average, you should get two nonconsecutive days of resistance/strength training per week.
Stretching, flexibility, and balance exercises
Flexibility activities like stretching may not directly impact your heart health; however, they do contribute to your musculoskeletal health, providing a solid foundation so that you can participate in physical activity that is beneficial to your heart. Activities such as yoga and tai chi keep you limber and reduce joint pain, cramping, and muscle tightness. As a bonus, stretching, flexibility, and balance exercises can help prevent falls and other types of injuries that could prevent you from participating in other physical activities.
Stretching before and after any physical activity is essential. Don’t stretch to the point where it hurts; you should feel the stretch, but not to the point where it is uncomfortable.
Putting it all together
Combining aerobic exercise with strength and conditioning, stretching, flexibility, and balance exercises will help your heart work at its best. Each plays a role in achieving optimum cardiovascular health.
If you are starting an exercise program, talk to your doctor about designing an exercise program that makes the most sense for you.