Exercise is Medicine: Keep Active with a Low-Heart-Rate Walk
How to Keep Your Heartbeat Healthy With Exercise
Aim to get your heart rate up at least 30 minutes a day, combining aerobics and strength training for the best results.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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“Use it or lose it.” That could be your doctor talking to you about your heart. It's a muscle, so if you want your heart to be strong, you have to exercise it even if you have a heart condition like atrial fibrillation.
Exercising for heart health is important, but never begin an exercise program without talking to your doctor first. He or she might order a stress test to see how well your heart works during exercise. Check with your doctor if you’re not sure how much exercise is safe for you, then start slow and build to meet your goals. Here's how to get going.
Choose Fitness Activities You Enjoy
The ideal heart-healthy exercise plan includes two kinds of exercise: aerobic and strengthening.
Aerobic exercises are those that get your heart pumping and have you breathing harder. Walking, swimming, biking, and using the elliptical at the gym all work, says Robert Kim, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
Choose whatever heart-healthy exercise you like, because if you like it, you’re more likely to stick with it. “It’s not so much what the exercise is, but reliably doing it,” Dr. Kim says.
Strengthening exercises involve using resistance to make your muscles stronger. For a healthy heart, these could include squats, stretches, lunges, crunches, bends, push-ups, and weights.
“Building muscle mass is essential to preventing and reversing metabolic syndrome, which is the number one cause of cardiovascular events,” says Steven Masley, MD, president of the Masley Optimal Health Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author ofThe 30-Day Heart Tune-Up.
Set Your Session Goals
The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days each week. That’s a minimum of 150 minutes a week. But if you don’t have 30 minutes a day to devote to heart fitness, break it up into three 10-minute segments. Another option is 50 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise at least three days a week.
Devote time at least twice a week to strength-training exercises. Your strength-training routine should include working each of the major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. Repeat each move, whether it's a sit-up or lifting a weight above your head, until it’s hard to do another repetition. Aim for two or three sets of each exercise. A set is anywhere from 8 to 12 repetitions of the movement.
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If weight training doesn’t appeal to you, try gardening or yoga. These activities are good options for strengthening your muscles, including your heart.
Meeting the minimum recommendations for heart health is good, but the more you do, the greater the benefits, says Dr. Masley. For the best results, vary not only your workouts, but also the intensity.
“I recommend interval training, short bursts of intense exercise typically for one to two minutes, followed by a slow easy zone for one to two minutes,” he says.
Pick two or more activities that you like. “If you do the same thing all the time, it gets too easy, and you don’t get as good a workout,” Masley says. “You want to mix it up.”
With cross training, you also lower your risk for injury from repetitive activities, says Luga Podesta, MD, a sports medicine physician at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.
Track Your Heart Rate
You can be sure you're exercising your heart properly if you monitor your heart rate. You can measure it yourself or invest in a simple heart rate monitor and app. Either way, you first need to calculate your target heart rate. To find it, start with your maximum heart rate, which is roughly 220 minus your age.
Heart rate targets and maximums by age group are:
- 20 years old: target of 100–170 and maximum of 200 beats per minute
- 30 years old: target of 95–162 and max of 190 beats per minute
- 40 years old: target of 90–153 and max of 180 beats per minute
- 50 years old: target of 85–145 and max of 170 beats per minute
- 60 years old: target of 80–136 and max of 160 beats per minute
- 70 years old: target of 72–128 and max of 150 beats per minute
Your target heart rate for exercise should be within the range of 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. A quick way to tell if you’re exercising at the right level for your heart: You should be able to exchange pleasantries with an exercise buddy, but not carry on a lengthy discussion.
Regular exercise will help lower your blood pressure, which will reduce your risk for stroke and heart attack. Talk to your doctor about your target blood pressure. Most people should have a top number of 120 or lower and a bottom number of 80 or lower.
“If you’re typically sedentary, you don’t want to go from 0 to 100 miles per hour,” Dr. Podesta says. “You’ll get hurt or you won’t continue to exercise.”
He recommends 10 to 15 minutes a day at first, building up to your fitness goals. For instance, start by walking at a brisk pace — one of the best exercises for heart health — for 10 to 15 minutes each day. Slowly increase your time and your pace.
Video: How to Lower Blood Pressure & Slow Down Your Heart Rate in Seconds - Dr. Alan Mandell, D.C.
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