Getting regular exercise helps prevent heart disease. And while any physical activity is better than none, certain types of exercise may be more beneficial for your heart.

Your body is designed for motion. Staying active supports many of its functions. When it comes to your heart health, exercise has direct and indirect effects that can help prevent and improve heart disease.

Heart disease is a type of cardiovascular disease (CVD) that includes a number of conditions affecting your heart’s muscle, valves, blood vessels, or function. While there are many variables that contribute to the development of heart disease, physical inactivity is a leading risk factor.

Not only does exercise help strengthen the muscle of your heart just as it does other muscles in the body, but it can also promote healthy heart benefits, such as:

If you’re looking to reduce your risk of heart disease or improve heart disease health outcomes, this guide can help you learn more about exercising for a healthy heart.

The “best” exercises for heart health depend on your individual physical health and fitness level. Everyone is different, and it’s important to start off slowly and safely with any exercise routine.

All physical exercise, when done in good form and with safety in mind, benefits your body — including your heart. Generally, however, regular moderate and vigorous intensity activities target your cardio-respiratory (heart and lung) performance the most.

Moderate and vigorous intensity exercises are aerobic. They increase your heart rate and require your body to use the large muscles in your body, like those of the arms and legs. When you’re doing an aerobic workout, you’ll notice your breathing increases along with your heart rate.

Moderate intensity activities are about a 5 or 6 on a scale of 10. They noticeably increase your heart rate and breathing, but they still allow you to talk without feeling too breathless.

Examples of exercises often done at moderate intensity include:

  • brisk walking or unburdened hiking
  • water aerobics
  • recreational bicycling
  • slow jogging

Vigorous intensity exercise is challenging. You’ll notice a significant increase in your heart rate and breathing. You may only be able to say one or two words before catching your breath. On a scale of 10, vigorous intensity exercise is a 7 or 8.

Examples of exercises that often reach vigorous intensity include:

  • running or sprinting
  • jumping rope
  • tennis
  • hockey
  • basketball
  • swimming laps

When it comes to aerobic workouts, the effort you put in and the difficulty involved can change your intensity level. A brisk walk on flat terrain, for example, might only be moderate intensity, while a brisk walk up a long hill or staircase might reach vigorous intensity.

It’s not only about aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercises may target your heart the most, but they’re not the only exercises you should focus on for heart health.

A complete exercise program for heart health also includes resistance training and flexibility exercises, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Was this helpful?

Physical activity recommendations from the American Heart Association state adults should get:

  • 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week, or
  • 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity a week, or
  • a combination of both each week

This should be paired with moderate to high intensity muscle strengthening at least twice a week, with an overall goal of 300 total minutes of any physical activity weekly.

Regular movement throughout the day is best for children under age 5 years, with kids between 6 and 17 years aiming for at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity activity daily.

Kids are also advised to incorporate 3 days of muscle and bone strengthening activities a week.

Your doctor will go over how these general guidelines apply to you. Your age, medical history, and heart health goals all matter.

If you’re recovering from a major cardiac event or procedure, for example, your exercise program will look a lot different than that of someone primarily focused on heart disease prevention.

Most exercises accommodate a spectrum of effort and difficulty, which means one exercise, like swimming, can be moderate or vigorous intensity, depending on how you push yourself.

Calculating your target heart rate is one way to accurately track the intensity of your workouts. Not only can it help you make sure you’re meeting your exercise goals, it can let you know when to increase your difficulty or effort as your fitness level improves.

Target heart rate is a percentage of your maximum heart rate. You can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. The number you get is your maximum beats per minute (bpm).

  • Moderate intensity exercise: Target heart rate is between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate.
  • Vigorous intensity exercise: Target heart rate is between 70% and 85% of your maximum heart rate.

To calculate these, take your estimated maximum heart rate and multiply it by the percentage converted to a decimal.

An example of the moderate intensity calculation for someone who is 40 years old would look like:

  • 220 – 40 = 180 bpm (maximum heart rate)
  • 50% of maximum heart rate is 180 x 0.50 = 90 bpm
  • 70% of maximum heart rate is 180 x 0.70 = 126 bpm

This means, if you’re 40 years old, your target heart rate for moderate intensity exercise is between 90 and 126 bpm.

What happens if your heart rate is too high during exercise?

Your maximum heart rate indicates the boundary between beneficial stress on the heart and dangerous strain. If you go over your maximum heart rate, you can cause significant damage to your heart and blood vessels, and the chance of an adverse cardiac event increases.

Going over your target heart rate isn’t always as dangerous as exceeding your maximum heart rate, but it can still put undue strain on your heart, contributing to conditions like overtraining syndrome.

If you go over your target heart rate for moderate or vigorous intensity exercise, slow down or stop what you’re doing. Take time to cool down fully and rehydrate, continually monitoring your heart rate to ensure it’s returning to baseline.

Once you’re back to baseline, start your activity again and gradually increase your effort until you reach your target heart range.

If your heart rate remains elevated even after resting, or if you’re having chest pain, trouble breathing, or loss of consciousness, seek medical attention as soon as you can.

Your doctor can discuss how often to track your heart rate while exercising based on your health goals. For some people, every 5 to 10 minutes is enough, while other people may need to continuously monitor.

You can track your heart rate manually using your fingers pressed at a pulse site on your body, like your neck or wrist. Starting at zero, count the beats you feel for 60 seconds, or count for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.

Since heart rate tracking is done frequently throughout a workout, stopping every 5 minutes to take a manual reading isn’t always practical. Thankfully, there are a variety of devices that can track your heart rate without interrupting your exercise flow.

These gadgets include:

  • chest bands
  • wrist or arm wearables
  • smart rings
  • pulse oximeters (worn on the tip of your finger and connected to a portable device)
  • smartphones
  • built-in equipment sensors on treadmills, stationary bikes, etc.

In general, chest bands are considered to be the most accurate heart rate readers available commercially. Their close proximity to the heart allows electrodes to continually detect electrical signals created when the heart contracts.

Compared with monitors worn on other parts of the body or carried, chest bands are less prone to signal disruptions caused by movement or a loss of contact with the skin.

Starting an exercise routine can feel daunting, especially if it’s never been a main focus in your life. To help exercise feel more like second nature and less like a chore, consider these tips:

  • Work with your doctor to set realistic goals that match your fitness level.
  • Focus on activities you enjoy, and find ways to vary their intensity as you progress.
  • Make everyday necessities opportunities for exercise, like parking farther away so you walk more.
  • Increase the intensity, duration, and frequency of workouts gradually.
  • Include exercise into your schedule so it’s planned and not done “when you have time.”
  • Find a workout friend to help you stay motivated and increase enjoyment.
  • Reward yourself for reaching exercise milestones (like running X number of miles for the first time).
  • Be flexible. A shorter exercise routine is better than none if your time is more constrained than usual.
  • Add variety to your routine with new exercises, fitness classes, or scenic locations.

And remember: Be kind to yourself. It’s OK to have days when exercise is the last thing you want to do or if you need an extra rest day. If you do miss a day, don’t let it slow you down. Get right back on schedule as soon as you can.

Moderate to vigorous intensity exercise is good for your heart. It can strengthen your heart muscle and improve a variety of functions that promote heart health.

While aerobic activity is specifically recommended for your heart health, strength training and flexibility work are also part of a complete fitness program.

With regular exercise, you can help prevent heart disease and improve health outcomes. Starting slowly with practical goals and focusing on activities you enjoy can help you ease into the routine of exercising regularly.