Exercises to Keep Your Heart Healthy

Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada. It is caused by a range of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels throughout the body, but there are ways to lower your risk.[1],[2] In addition to eating a nutritious diet and managing stress, keeping physically active sets a solid foundation for maintaining a healthy heart.

How does exercise improve heart health?

One of the biggest benefits of working out regularly is maintaining a lean body. But this has nothing to do with looking fit! It’s because your waist circumference indicates how much abdominal fat you are carrying, which is a strong measure of your heart health.[3] A waist circumference greater than 94 cm for men and 80 cm for women puts you at an increased risk of heart disease.[4]

In addition to keeping your body weight within a healthy range, physical activity supports heart health by:[5],[6]

  • strengthening the heart muscle
  • lowering blood pressure and improving heart rate variability
  • preventing arterial damage from elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol and high blood sugar
  • reducing stress

Which exercises are best for your heart?

Different types of exercise have different benefits for your heart. While there’s no “best” exercise, regularly taking part in a variety of physical activities will keep your fitness well-rounded and fun. By incorporating aerobic exercise, resistance training, and mind-body exercises into your daily life, you’ll support your heart in multiple ways.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is what really gets your heart rate up and your breathing heavy. This type of exercise boosts your aerobic fitness, including how well your heart pumps and circulates oxygen to your muscles. Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity every week, accumulated in bouts of 10 minutes or more.[7] If you’re just beginning an exercise program, be sure to consult your healthcare professional about your specific needs.

The best part about aerobic exercise is that there are many options to choose from. Some fantastic aerobic activities are:

Brisk walking or running – Walking and running are great activities for getting outside and enjoying the fresh air. Both are weight-bearing exercises that build bone density, tone muscles, and improve cardiovascular health. All you need is a pair of athletic shoes and you’re good to go.

Jumping rope – Jumping rope is an efficient weight-bearing aerobic exercise for anyone who is short on time, travels regularly, or has limited access to recreational spaces. It gets your heart rate up quickly, works both lower and upper body muscles, and also helps with coordination.

Cycling – You can cover far greater distances on a bike than on foot, making your cycling workout a great opportunity to explore! Whether you prefer urban cycling, trail riding, or indoor spin classes, cycling is an effective aerobic exercise that is easier on the joints than running or jumping rope.

Rowing – Using a rowing machine (or rowing a real boat) provides a full-body aerobic workout. It engages major muscle groups in the upper and lower body and core, while providing a low-impact cardio session. By increasing the resistance on your machine, rowing can build endurance and strength at the same time.

 

Resistance training

Resistance training is a key part of a heart-healthy fitness program. By helping to build muscle and burn calories, it contributes to lean muscle mass. Strengthening your muscles can also improve your aerobic workouts and help prevent injuries. Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults take part in muscle and bone strengthening activities at least two days per week.5 By scheduling these into nonconsecutive days, your muscles will have time to recover.

Similar to aerobic exercise, there are many forms of resistance training to choose from. Here are a few ideas for getting started:

Free weights – Hand-held weights, kettlebells, medicine balls, and sandbags are all effective tools for strengthening your muscles. You can even use household items, such as water jugs and car tires, provided you can grasp and lift them safely. Begin with lighter weights and gradually add on more weight or repetitions over time. Familiarize yourself with a series of moves using your weights, such as biceps curls, presses, deadlifts, lunges, and squats.

Resistance bands – These stretchy resistance bands are fun, versatile, and portable. Start with three different moves, completed as three sets of 15 repetitions. Familiarize yourself with a few band exercises, such as bicep curls, chest presses, lat pulldowns, glute kick-backs, and kneeling crunches.

Body resistance exercises – Using your own body as resistance is an effective and completely free way to conquer your resistance training. A combination of squats, lunges, push-ups, chin-ups, and planking will engage muscles throughout your body. Begin with three sets of eight repetitions or 15 seconds for planking. As you progress, increase your number of repetitions in each set or the length of time for each plank.

Mind-body exercise

Mind-body exercises provide a wonderful balance to aerobic exercise and strength training. By combining body movement, mental focus, and controlled breathing, mind-body exercises aim to improve strength, balance, flexibility, and overall health. Research shows they also reduce stress and improve heart rate variability.[8] Three mind-body exercises to try are:

Yoga – There are many different styles of yoga, ranging from slow and restorative to hot and intense. Speak to a certified yoga instructor at your local yoga studio to see what they recommend starting with, or try a few different classes to find which you enjoy most.

Tai chi – This ancient Chinese exercise combines a sequence of movements that flow together. It’s a gentle way to improve your balance and de-stress. Like yoga, there are different forms of tai chi to choose from.

Qi gong – Similar to tai chi, qi gong is a movement-based form of meditation and traditional Chinese wellness practice. It has been found to improve multiple biomarkers of heart health.[9]

Exercise is fun

The health benefits of regular exercise are hard to ignore – especially when it comes to your heart. With so many different types of exercise contributing to heart health, staying active can be a fun and rewarding part of your everyday life.

 

References

[1] Government of Canada. Heart disease in Canada: Highlights from the Canadian Chronic Disease Surveillance System. 2017. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/heart-disease-canada-fact-sheet.html [Accessed 21st January 2020].

[2] Heart & Stroke. Types of heart disease. Available from: https://www.heartandstroke.ca/heart/what-is-heart-disease/types-of-heart-disease [Accessed 21st January 2020].

[3] Flint AJ, Rexrode KM, Hu FB, et al. Body mass index, waist circumference, and risk of coronary heart disease: a prospective study among men and women. Obes Res Clin Pract. 2010;4(3):e171-81.

[4] Heart & Stroke. Healthy weight and waist. Available from: https://www.heartandstroke.ca/get-healthy/healthy-weight/healthy-weight-and-waist [Accessed 21st January 2020].

[5] Stewart KJ. 3 kinds of exercise that boost heart health. John Hopkins Medicine. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/3-kinds-of-exercise-that-boost-heart-health [Accessed 21st January 2020].

[6] Goit RK, Pant BN, Shrewastwa MK. Moderate intensity exercise improves heart rate variability in obese adults with type 2 diabetes. IHJ. 2018;70(4):486-91.

[7] CSEP. Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults (18 to 64 years). Available from: https://csepguidelines.ca/adults-18-64/ [Accessed 21st January 2020].

[8] Zou L, Sasaki JE, Wei GX, et al. Effects of mind-body exercises (Tai Chi/Yoga) on heart rate variability parameters and perceived stress: A randomized systematic review with meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Clin Med. 2018;7(11):404.

[9] Jahnke R, Larkey L, Rogers C, et al. A comprehensive review of health benefits of quigong and tai chi. Am J Health Promot. 2010;24(6):e1-25.