Exercise is one of the very best things you can do to keep your heart healthy and functioning. But, as you develop an exercise regime with your heart health in mind, you may be curious: Is it better to jump on the treadmill for a cardio workout or pick up some weights for a strength training routine? And what role does your yoga or stretching routine play in all of this?
The good news, according to fitness and medical experts: There’s room for all of your favorite workouts in heart-healthy exercise routines. While cardio is often touted as, well, the exercise of choice for your cardiovascular system, strength training has many benefits, too.
“Strength training increases lean muscle mass, which gives your cardiovascular system places to send blood being pumped,” says Kelsey Burd, certified trainer and coach for Row House in Chicago. “This will result in less pressure on your arteries, which will help reduce the chances of heart-related problems.”
We asked the experts for their best tips in building a workout plan that will benefit your heart. Here’s how different types of workouts can improve your cardiovascular health, and how often experts say you should be doing them.
First, How Often Should You Be Working Out?
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The American Heart Association spells out clear exercise guidelines for adults: You should be getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity. Or, you can do a combination of both types, and preferably spread these exercises out throughout the week.
To really get this right, add moderate-to-high intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least twice a week. You’ll gain even more benefits if you’re active at least 300 minutes (or 5 hours per week), and you can increase the amount you’re working out and the intensity gradually.
If you’re looking to get started, Amita Singh, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, says the key to success is setting reasonable goals.
For those who are sedentary, she says, choose two or three days per week to get started, and incorporate some simple workouts like walking outside or on a treadmill, using a stationary bike or even YouTube exercise videos (in the time of COVID-19) for at least 20-minutes. If you can achieve this after a month, add another session until you hit your goal.
“The key is consistency and setting achievable goals, but the benefits are often more than what most patients can imagine in terms of their physical, mental and cardiovascular wellness,” Singh says.
Now, let’s dive into how different types of exercise can help strengthen your heart muscle, helping it become more efficient as it pumps blood through your body.
Aerobic Exercise (AKA Cardio)
Why cardiologists love it: Aerobic exercise, in particular, can lower metabolic and cardiac risk factors, Singh says. It has potential to lower blood pressure, delay the development of abnormal cholesterol patterns and help maintain lean body mass and boost sensitivity to insulin, which is key in preventing or managing diabetes, she says. Plus, it can improve sleep and mood, Singh points out.
How much should you do? Thirty minutes a day five days a week is an easy goal to remember.
What counts? Examples of aerobic exercise include rowing, cycling, brisk walking, jogging or running, swimming, aerobic dance classes, and body composition strength training, Burd says.
Alan Roberts, a cyclist who owns Pelo Fitness, which has classes in San Rafael and San Francisco, says his favorite heart-healthy workout is on a bike, and also enjoys 30-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) courses for cardio workouts.
Trainer tip: “Since aerobic exercise is about maintaining an elevated heart rate, it’s beneficial to find a fun environment and group to exercise with to keep you motivated and in the zone, along with a coach who can safely and effectively pace you through aerobic exercise,” Burd says.
Did you know? Most people, Singh says, underestimate the intensity of the exercise they do! Moderate intensity exercise should have you a little out of breath with a light sweat, but you’re still able to hold a conversation,” Singh says. Vigorous intensity is usually a heavier sweat, and it is harder to maintain a conversation. To put it another way, you don’t necessarily need to be sweating buckets and panting on a treadmill for it to count as exercise. Heart monitors that come with new smartphones or watches can also help you monitor your heart rate during exercise, which can tell you how hard you are working, Singh says.
Strength and Resistance Training
Why cardiologists love it: Weight training can have modest effects on lowering triglycerides, cholesterol and blood pressure, Singh says. It can also promote bone health, which is important for healthy aging. “Weight lifting has benefits even at low weights,” she says.
How much should you do? In most trials to determine its benefits, resistance training consists of two to three sessions per week lasting for 20 to 30 minutes, with up to 10 different weight-lifting exercises (8-12 repetitions each), Singh says. The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice a week.
What counts? Make sure you’re doing full-body workouts, where all major muscle groups such as arms, shoulders, quads, hamstrings, abs, back and chest are engaged, says Keith Gulliford, Personal Trainer at Life Time Northbrook. A trainer can help you develop a strength workout routine.
Trainer tip: Peripheral Heart Action training is an approachable form of resistance strength training for heart health, Burd says. “It is a form of circuit training where you alternate lower and upper body exercises to quickly circulate blood through the body,” she says. This type of programming can be adjusted for effectiveness in maintaining heart health whether your goal is weight loss or muscle gain. It doesn’t have to be heavy to be effective, either. Alternating 10 reps or so between two movements like a body weight glute bridge and hand release push-up will get your blood moving and heart rate up, she says.
Did you know? You don’t have to go into bodybuilder mode! Exercises using free weights, machines or your body’s own resistance all count.
Stretching and Flexibility Exercises
Why cardiologists love it: “Stretching and flexibility training is helpful but it is not clear that this can substitute for good old aerobic activity,” Singh says. “I recommend it for patients who may have issues with balance or mobility to help improve musculoskeletal health.” Some studies suggest yoga may have heart-healthy benefits, from reducing blood pressure and cholesterol to lowering stress and body mass index, according to the American Heart Association.
How much should you do? Daily and before and after your other workouts. “Stretching and flexibility training will improve range of motion, help prevent injury, and decrease muscle stiffness and soreness,” Burd says.
What counts? Basic stretches, pilates and yoga both fall in this category, Gulliford says.
Yoga instructor tip: There are many different ways to support stress regulation and nervous system regulation with yoga practices, which we know are beneficial for the cardiovascular system and regulating inflammation in the body, says Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine and teacher on Yoga Medicine® Online. “Some of my favorites are restorative yoga, meditation and pranayama practices, or breath work,” she says.
Did you know? Inversions can be a great way to support the venous blood return which can have an effect on cardiac output as well, Cruikshank says. “I think of it as rejuvenating the cardiovascular system,” she says.
Want more ways to improve your cardiovascular health? Here are 28 tips for improving your heart health.
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Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.