Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. Increasing physical activity from as little as 10 minutes a day to the government’s recommended 30 to 45 minutes a day, five or more days of the week, can help reduce your risk of heart disease and heart attacks. It can also prevent and manage many conditions and diseases, including some cancers, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
What exactly is ‘physical activity’?
- Physical activity – Daily actions, such as walking to the shops, taking the stairs, getting off public transport and walking to your destination.
- Exercise – Organised activities and sports, such as swimming, cycling, yoga, and walking / running groups (e.g., Park run).
You can increase your daily physical activity without joining a gym or even breaking a sweat.
Why is physical activity and exercise good for your heart?
Building up your physical activity to the recommended level has many benefits. By making your heart work a little harder, you can cut your risk of heart disease by a third – regardless of your age, gender, income or where you live.
How does physical activity help your body?
- Physical activity is good medicine. It can help reduce heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. If you have heart disease, physical activity can help you manage the condition.
- Increased activity can help you manage your weight, which also has many benefits including lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Being a healthy weight also reduces the risk factor for heart disease.
- Regular exercise can help your bones and muscles become stronger.
How does physical activity help your mind?
- Immediate results – If you take a short, brisk walk you may feel more refreshed and relaxed. You may also find this benefit will help motivate you to walk more often and for longer.
- Improved wellbeing – Being active can help ease anxiety and depression, especially when done in natural environments like parks and gardens. You may find yourself feeling happier, more confident, and sleeping better.
- More opportunities to socialise – Being physically active is a great way to connect with others and build a sense of community. As you participate in more activities and exercise you might find yourself socialising more often with friends and family or perhaps joining an exercise class or sports team.
How much physical activity do you need?
Our busy, often sedentary lifestyle can make it hard to do the recommended amount of physical activity. But it’s good to know you are never too old or too young to move more. This diagram illustrates how much activity is advised for better health based on your age group.
- Moderate-intensity exercise – Activities that make your heartbeat faster but don’t make you breathless.
- Vigorous-intensity exercise – High-intensity activities that make your heart rate higher and you breathe more heavily.
How do you get started?
- Start small – Begin by blocking out some time in your day, even if it is just for a short stroll. You can then build up gradually. Remember that every step counts.
- Set realistic goals and be kind to yourself – If you are new to exercise, don’t be hard on yourself. Try to create a plan, starting with 10 minutes a day. Slowly building up may help you feel motivated to continue.
- Get more active in your community – Go for a walk around your street. and you’ll probably see lots of places and opportunities to be more active. You could also take public transport instead of driving your car.
- Mix up your activities – To keep activities enjoyable, add some variety or try something new like tai chi or a dance class. You can also build activity into your social outings, such as going for a walk with a friend.
- Be prepared – Make sure you dress for the weather and be sun smart. You can wear an activity tracker to monitor progress and help you stay motivated.
- Make sure you’re safe – Know your limits and make sure you don’t overdo high-intensity activity. Stick to well-lit public areas in the early morning or take a friend at night. Be aware of your surroundings by keeping your headphone volume to a minimum.
- Get active with friends and family – Having a buddy is another great way to stay motivated with physical activity.
- Join a community group – Join one of the many walking / running groups around or contact your local council to find out about free or low-cost activities.
Take care of yourself
Being active over your lifetime is a great way to improve your health and happiness. While light to moderate physical activity is fine for most people, if you feel symptoms of discomfort, stop the immediately and seek medical advice.
Symptoms of discomfort may include:
- Chest pain
- Feeling faint
- Difficulty breathing
- Your heart beats irregularly or too fast
Remember to speak to your doctor before starting any new physical activity if you have pre-existing health issues.
Being physically active is a major step toward good heart health. It’s one of your most effective tools for strengthening the heart muscle, keeping your weight under control, and warding off the artery damage from high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure that can lead to heart attack or stroke.
How different types of exercise benefit you.
What it does: Aerobic exercise improves circulation, which results in lowered blood pressure and heart rate. In addition, it increases your overall aerobic fitness and it helps your cardiac output (how well your heart pumps). Aerobic exercise also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and, if you already live with diabetes, helps you control your blood glucose.
How much: Ideally, at least 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week.
Examples: Brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, playing tennis, skipping etc. Heart-pumping aerobic exercise is the kind that doctors have in mind when they recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity.
Resistance Training (Strength Work)
What it does: Resistance training has a more specific effect on body composition. For people who are carrying a lot of body fat (including a big belly, which is a risk factor for heart disease), it can help reduce fat and create leaner muscle mass. A combination of aerobic exercise and resistance work is best. Resistance training may help raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.
How much: At least two non-consecutive days per week of resistance training is a good rule of thumb.
Examples: Working out with free weights (such as hand weights, dumbbells, or barbells), on weight machines, with resistance bands or through body-resistance exercises, such as push-ups, squats, and pull-ups.
Stretching, Flexibility and Balance
What they do: Flexibility workouts, such as stretching, don’t directly contribute to heart health. What they do is benefit musculoskeletal health, which enables you to stay flexible and free from joint pain, cramping and other muscular issues. That flexibility is a critical part of being able to maintain aerobic exercise and resistance training.
If you have a good musculoskeletal foundation, that enables you to do the exercises that help your heart. As a bonus, flexibility and balance exercises help maintain stability and prevent falls, which can cause injuries that limit other kinds of exercise.
How much: Every day and before and after other exercise.
Examples: Your fitness professional can recommend basic stretches you can do at home, or you can find online examples (though check with your doctor if you’re concerned about the intensity of the exercise). Tai chi and yoga also improve these skills, and classes are available in many communities.