Aerobic exercise is called "cardio" for a reason—but heart doctors say it's not the only way to make your heart strong and your life long!
From aerial yoga to TikTok workouts, flying trapeze lessons, and the latest fusion classes like Piloxing, there’s a flavor of fitness out there for virtually anyone with the want or the willingness to move.
Researchers say this is a groundbreaking trend that’s occurred, in part, from the extra time in the day people found during pandemic lockdown to discover exercise that could improve their health, and that they’d actually look forward to doing. One 2022 study showed that enjoyment is a significant predictor of how likely we are to stick with a type of exercise—especially if it involves setting concrete goals we can work toward improving.
Everybody’s reasons for exercising are individual, like improving bone density, muscle strength, and mental health, to name a few—but it’s probably safe to say that a healthy heart is a pretty universal desire we all share. According to a leading cardiologist, the right mix of exercises in your routine can do wonders for your heart health. It’s all about working out with the right balance.
Jessica Hennessy, MD, PhD, a sports cardiologist and cardiovascular disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells three simple strategies for your workout routine to keep your heart strong, help prevent heart disease, and improve your recovery if you do have a cardiac event.
The best exercises for heart health
The heart is a muscle—and just like any other muscle, it gets stronger the more you work it, Dr. Hennessy says. “The way I like to think about how aerobic exercise strengthens the heart is that it’s preparing the heart to handle any stress on the body,” she explains. “By ‘practicing’ this stress, it gives the heart the ability to handle it in a positive way.”
Additionally, aerobic exercise (often called “cardio”) helps manage weight, improves blood circulation, and prevents artery damage from high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure…all of which keep your heart healthy and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults get at least:
- 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity,
- or 75 minutes of vigorous activity,
- or a combination of both.
To meet this goal, Dr. Hennessy suggests you use your heart rate as a guide to ensure you’re not over-taxing it, as “a slow and steady increase in physical activity is the best way to train your heart muscle.”
Your maximum heart rate (the highest rate that’s considered safe for you) is determined by 220 minus your age. Generally speaking, aim for:
- 50% to 70% of your max for moderate intensity
- 70% to 80% of your maximum for vigorous intensity.
“Moderate intensity exercises are things like brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour), doubles tennis, gardening, and dancing,” she says. “Vigorous intensity exercises are things like hiking with a heavy backpack or uphill, running, swimming laps, singles tennis, and biking 10 miles per hour or faster.”
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Muscles are major energy users in your body, Dr. Hennessy says—so more muscle mass means more energy use throughout the day. This means you earn a higher metabolic rate that makes it easier to burn calories and maintain a healthy weight. Research also shows that increased muscle mass has a protective effect on your arteries, reducing your risk of high blood pressure and arterial stiffness.
The AHA recommends moderate-to-high-intensity resistance training at least twice a week, in addition to aerobic exercise. But again, progression is key. Lifting too much weight too quickly can put too much pressure on your heart (and increases your risk of injury), so “start low and work your way up for maximal benefit,” Dr. Hennessey says. You should be able to complete a set of 10 repetitions at a weight that works the muscle close to fatigue, she advises.
Stretching is essential to keep injuries at bay—and you don’t want to stall the progress you’ve made exercising for heart health. It also helps to improve flexibility (your muscles’ ability to stretch) and mobility (the range of motion in your joints), both of which help you get the best bang for your buck from a workout. Balance work, such as yoga poses, can gradually strengthen the heart along with other muscle groups, Dr. Hennessey adds.
Still, recent research suggests that stretching has specific cardiovascular benefits as well, according to Rachelle Sultana, PhD, an exercise physiologist with Healthstin. A 2020 study published in The Journal of Physiology found that 12 weeks of passive stretching improved blood flow and decreased arterial stiffness, reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems.
Can exercise repair heart damage?
Exercise can improve recovery after cardiac events like a heart attack or stroke, Dr. Hennessey says. “Multiple studies have shown that patients with known coronary artery disease who sustain physical activity have lower inflammatory markers, less heart failure, and improved survival at 30 years of follow-up.”
But it may also be able to repair damaged heart tissue—at least to an extent. Your skeletal muscles heal after an injury, and while the human heart tissue doesn’t work in exactly the same way, there’s evidence that it can repair its tissue. This regeneration is slow, however, so it can potentially fix tissue damage from factors like aging but not necessarily from traumas like heart attacks.
It works like this: “Exercise allows us to release hormones that grow additional vessels, improving blood flow to your organs and your heart,” says Long Cao, MD, a cardiologist with Memorial Hermann in Houston. “It’s like growing more roots when a tree needs more water.” Exercise also improves blood flow, which helps encourage all healing processes in the body.
Dr. Cao adds that often, when scar tissue forms in the heart, the leftover functioning muscular tissue gets bigger and stronger.