4 Great Ways to Build a Strong, Healthy Heart

An active lifestyle is great for cardiovascular health — here are some of the best forms of exercise.

Exercise is essential to help prevent cardiovascular problems, both now and later in life. The American Heart Association lists exercise as one of Life’s Essential 8: The Eight Most Important Healthy Lifestyle Strategies for Keeping Your Stocks in Top Shape. In addition to getting active, the list includes eating a balanced diet, logging enough sleep, controlling blood sugar and kicking tobacco to the curb.

How Exercise Can Benefit Heart Health
Regular exercise and general physical activity is vital for your heart for many reasons, the main being that it reduces the workload on your heart.

By exercising regularly, your muscles improve their ability to use the oxygen in your blood so your heart doesn’t have to pump as much blood. This in turn lowers heart rate and blood pressure. So your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to keep beating. For most people, that’s between 60 and 100 beats per minute, and according to the American Heart Association, lower is better.

And that’s just the beginning, exercise can also lower stress hormones that damage your heart, improve your blood sugar, give you a better sense of well-being, and reduce excess body fat and harmful inflammation. All of these benefits play an invaluable role in helping to reduce the risk of heart disease and maintain normal function.

The Best Types of Exercise for Heart Health
So what type of exercise is best? The truth is, all physical activity helps promote heart health. After all, if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’ll let it go — and then your heart won’t get the benefit it needs.

If you’re serious about optimizing your workouts to improve your cardiovascular fitness, here are some activities that research has found to be particularly effective in this department. Here are four great types of exercise for a strong, healthy heart—and you’re probably doing some of them already!

1. Go fast
There’s probably no exercise that’s more cardio-friendly than walking because it’s convenient, low-impact, easy to do with friends, requires no equipment, and is practically free. All you need is a pair of supportive walking shoes and a safe place to walk (indoor or outdoor). Plus, you don’t have to spend much time walking if you want to prevent heart disease. According to a study in the European Heart Journal, just seven minutes of brisk walking is enough to reduce heart disease risk. Even a five-minute walk after each meal can help lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and stress hormones.

And the more you move the better. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (or a combination of both) per week. Of course, “for some people, this level may not be possible, especially older adults. Instead, start where you can and work your way up to whatever it is you’re doing. This is great for Everyone is relative and different.

2. Yoga
If you haven’t hit the mat yet, it might inspire you to know that yoga offers some surprising cardiovascular benefits—surprisingly, you might not think of it as a particularly heart-pounding form of exercise. but it is not the truth.

Yoga has been shown to lower blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels and heart rate, and a study in the International Journal of Yoga proves the heart benefits of yoga. A new study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that among hypertensive patients who performed 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times, 15 minutes of yoga lowered blood pressure and heart rate more effectively than stretching. Yoga also improved their 10-year cardiovascular risk.

Plus, yoga reduces stress hormones, prevents emotional eating and excessive alcohol consumption, and improves sleep, all of which, if left unchecked, can contribute to heart disease.

Not sure if you’re ready to invest in in-person lessons or private lessons? Here are some easy ways to try out the wide world of yoga for free.

3. High-Intensity Exercise
The most common form of high-intensity exercise is interval training, which involves alternating between hard, heart-pounding work and recovery. For example, you could do 30 seconds of vigorous exercise (think: jumping jacks, fast and heavy bikes, sprints, jump rope) followed by a minute or two of rest/recovery (walking in place, slow walking, active stretching, light cycling). Then repeat this for the rest of your workout.

As daunting as it may seem, interval workouts are very cardio-friendly, namely because this type of training increases production of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. This lowers cholesterol and increases insulin sensitivity, which leads to better regulation of blood sugar and body fat.

The benefits don’t stop there, though. High-intensity training helps muscles grow and the heart get stronger. Of course, not everyone can tolerate high-intensity exercise, so Dr. Basit recommends exercising to a fitness level that’s right for you.

To gauge how hard you should be working, use what experts call a perceived exertion rating, which uses a scale from 0 to 10. Zero is how you feel when you’re doing nothing; 10 means you’re giving it your all. During interval “on” or hard work, you should be between a 7 and 10; during recovery, stay around a 3 or 4, according to the American Council on Exercise. (Remember, your 10 is not the same as your spouse’s 10 or an Olympic athlete’s 10.

Don’t overdo it—more isn’t always better when it comes to high-intensity exercise. Incorporating exercise into your routine is great, but it doesn’t have to be every day, aim for interval training about two times a week, on non-consecutive days.

4. Strength training
While aerobic exercise gets a lot of attention for improving heart health, don’t overlook strength training, such as weightlifting and resistance training. The American Heart Association recommends doing muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week. Not only does it build and maintain muscle mass, which decreases with age, lifting weights can also reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. According to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, people who did less than an hour of strength training per week reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by 40 percent to 70 percent.

A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that 30 to 60 minutes per week of weightlifting or other strength-building activity (without any aerobic exercise) was associated with all-cause mortality and noncommunicable diseases. (including cardiovascular disease) was positively associated with a 10% to 17% reduction in risk. When strength training is combined with aerobic exercise, that number jumps to an impressive 40 percent risk.