Simple Exercises to Keep Your Heart Healthy
Learn High and Low-Impact Exercises to Help Your Heart
February is National Heart Month, and while Valentine’s Day gets all the attention when it comes to hearts, there is no better time to think about how you can make sure your own stays healthy. There is little more important to our bodies than a reliable ticker, but unfortunately, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. Genetics and other factors such as smoking play a role, but there are some easy things we can do to promote heart health. Even just 30 minutes of exercise a day makes a massive difference.
Building a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
To properly exercise for your heart, the general goal is to hit 65-85% of your maximum heart rate, which can be roughly found by subtracting your age from 220. That means if you are 45, your maximum heart rate is 175 beats per minute; when working out you would want to see a heart rate between 114 and 149 bpm. Fitness watches track this easily. Another quick way to “calculate” this is whether you can hold a conversation while actively exercising–if you find yourself completely out of breath, your heart is working too hard and it’s time for a water break.
Sometimes, just taking the stairs (a surprisingly effective workout!) can be enough to hit this goal. Other slight changes to your routine–like practicing yoga before breakfast or adding a short walk every evening–can drastically reduce your risk for heart disease. The point is to get up and move; even if that just means cleaning the house, cooking, or gardening, it’s leagues better than staying on the couch.
Health authorities also recommend limiting saturated fats–such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy–and sodium, while increasing fiber intake. Some simple changes you can make are swapping butter and creamy dressings for lighter vegetable oils, choosing leaner proteins or poultry and fish, buying the low-fat and low-sodium versions of your favorite products, and eating a daily variety of veggies. Here’s a tip: frozen vegetables have the same nutritional value, and can be far more convenient to keep on hand.
Get Your Heart Pumping
Some days, you just won’t feel like you have the time or energy. However, building a positive habit and working out even for a few minutes can help your heart in the long run.
There are three main categories of exercise that will improve the health of your heart and related systems. The first is aerobic exercise, such as a brisk walk, swimming, or cycling. Aerobic exercise improves your circulation and cardiac output (how much your heart pumps), which lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. It can also help prevent type 2 diabetes and manage glucose levels. 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is enough to make a substantial difference.
You can also try resistance or strength training. This includes free weights and weight machines, as well as body-resistance exercises (such as push-ups). When performed in conjunction with aerobic exercise, just two workouts a week raises good and lowers bad cholesterol–improving your heart’s health.
Lastly we have flexibility, or workouts that focus on stretching and balance; they contribute to heart health more indirectly. By strengthening your musculoskeletal system, you are better equipped to perform aerobic and weight training exercises–even at ages where flexibility and the risk of injuries from falling become prohibitive to standard workout routines. It’s a good habit to run through some stretches before and after every workout. Yoga and tai chi classes are available in many communities, or online.
Each of these categories can include high-impact and low-impact exercises. High-impact exercise is any workout that places strain on your joints: think of a long run, and how each step hitting the ground reverberates through your ankles and knees. If your joints are healthy, this isn’t a problem. For others, alternatives can drastically reduce discomfort.
For those who find a typical walk around the block to be too taxing on their joints, there are modifications you can make like “nordic walking.” This technique uses walking poles to support the upper body, leading to a total-body but low-impact workout.
Cycling is an enjoyable approach to exercise that can even replace your commute. If your area’s infrastructure is not supportive of cyclists, ellipticals are found in most gyms and becoming more popular at home as well; these allow for the sensation of running, but the low impact of cycling.
Yoga and Tai Chi are great exercises for those with limited mobility. They also provide a surprising amount of aerobic exercise, as many poses call for you to raise your arms over your heart. This makes it just a little harder to breathe, getting you out of breath faster and getting you a better workout more quickly.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, strength training is also considered a low-impact exercise and is a key component in many physical therapy recoveries. You can scale weight up gradually, and target specific muscles (besides your heart).
Water aerobics, or any swimming, is also low-impact and preferred by many with joint pain or excess weight. Similarly, try dancing (120-135 bpm songs make for good aerobic timing) classes with friends at your local rec center, or dance along to some Zumba videos at home. Another option would be to head out to the courts for some light tennis, or other total-body, low-impact sports like rowing and skiing.
Running, jogging, or briskly walking is the most common high-impact exercise that promotes a healthy heart. No equipment is necessary, just a safe running route (although a treadmill works too). Team sports usually fit the bill as well, like basketball or touch football.
High impact interval training, or HIIT, is an option that takes only a few minutes a day and will really get you moving. There are plenty of online routines you can follow, to knock out exercise quickly every morning or evening. However, not every HIIT exercise has to be fast-paced to break a sweat. Interval training simply means integrating levels into your workout. If you have a daily walk, an example would be to alternate short bursts of jogging–around 30 seconds–with longer intervals of walking–1-2 minutes–at your normal pace.
It can be difficult to fit exercise into a busy work week, but the rise of the home gym is making it easier than ever to find the time. Wind down with a VR workout on your favorite console, take short breaks to jump rope and do a few dumbbell reps, or even find a machine to pedal away under your desk all day while working from home.
The heart is like any other muscle in that regularly using it makes it stronger; however, there is good and bad exercise for the heart. A lot of the US is seeing snow lately, and unfortunately the need for shoveling correlates with an increase in heart attacks. Any sudden exercise you are not used to can put a strain on your heart, so be sure to pace yourself while training.
Take Care of Your Heart
In a world with stressful jobs and ubiquitous transportation it’s easy to not exercise, and building a healthy habit takes time. However, taking care of your heart is worth it. You can’t change your genes, but a proven way to prevent heart disease is proper exercise.
Now is the time to consider what you can do to help your heart. Maybe some exercises sound more fun to you than others, or maybe you already know you’ll stick to them best if you have a partner to keep you motivated and accountable. However you get started, it’s something your heart will undoubtedly thank you for.