This Is the Best Exercise for Heart Health, According to a Cardiologist

Updated: May 04, 2024

Top heart experts reveal the best exercise for a strong heart, plus share essential tips for a sustainable fitness routine to help keep you on track.

You probably already know that exercise is essential for maintaining your overall wellness, in particular your heart health—but what you might not realize is that most of us don’t meet the necessary levels of physical activity. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), only about 20% of adults and teens engage in enough exercise to maintain optimal health. The AHA recommends that adults aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a mix of both, spread throughout the week. A 2022 study published in the AHA journal Circulation even suggests that exercising two or four times the minimum could reduce your mortality risk by up to 31%.

If you’re not currently meeting these exercise guidelines though, don’t worry. The key is to begin gradually and build up your routine over time. We’ve sought insights from heart experts who share their recommendations for the best heart health exercises, and practical tips to make your fitness journey both enjoyable and sustainable.

This is the best exercise for heart health

In achieving optimal heart health, the consensus among experts is clear: Any form of physical activity is a step in the right direction. However, if you’re looking for a starting point, Lee MacDonald, MD, a cardiologist at AdventHealth in Littleton, CO, highly recommends walking. “Walking is the one I generally recommend. It is free and most anyone can do it anywhere at any time,” he says. He typically suggests his patients engage in 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week. This approach is practical and adaptable, allowing the 30 minutes to be divided into two 15-minute sessions for convenience and ease.  Walking also plays a pivotal role in heart recovery—it’s a common element in cardiac rehab programs, often involving walking on a treadmill.

However, the secret to maintaining a heart-healthy exercise regimen lies in how much you enjoy the activity itself. Dr. MacDonald emphasizes the importance of personal preference in exercise selection. “Ultimately, picking an activity that is something you like to do will be key.”

This sentiment is echoed by Donna Arnett, PhD, MSPH, BSN, past president of the AHA and Go Red for Women volunteer, and provost of the University of South Carolina: “Make sure to find exercises that you enjoy. You’ll be more likely to stick with a routine if you enjoy it.”

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Additional recommendations for heart-healthy exercises

Navigating the path to a heart-healthy lifestyle can be challenging, especially when starting from scratch or facing time constraints. Dr. MacDonald is familiar with these challenges. He often counsels patients concerned about meeting the AHA’s guideline of 150 minutes of exercise per week. His advice? “Start with a goal of half of this or even a small amount and build up to this over six months,” he recommends. For beginners, he suggests a manageable goal like a 10-minute walk four times a week, gradually increasing the duration to build strength and confidence.

Beyond the simplicity and effectiveness of walking, Dr. MacDonald and Dr. Arnett propose a range of activities that align with the AHA’s recommendations and cater to various preferences and fitness levels:

Moderate Intensity Aerobic Activities:

  • Water aerobics
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Leisurely biking
  • Gardening
  • For those with joint concerns, Dr. MacDonald suggests low-impact options like stationary biking.

Vigorous Intensity Aerobic Activities:

  • Running
  • Swimming laps
  • Hiking uphill
  • Aerobic dancing
  • Jumping rope
  • Playing singles tennis
  • Fast-paced bicycling

They also advocate strength training two to three times a week to boost cardiovascular health, particularly improving blood pressure, with exercises like bodyweight workouts, free weights, or weight machines.

Remember, the benefits of regular exercise extend beyond heart health, reducing risks of diseases like diabetes and dementia, improving sleep, memory, and balance, and even easing anxiety and depression. By choosing exercises that align with your preferences and abilities, you can enhance your overall health and enjoy the path to a heart-healthy lifestyle. It’s also important to always consult with your doctor regarding any concerns and determine the most suitable physical activities for your health needs.

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