Your heart is a muscle. That simple fact can serve as a reminder that exercise is necessary to keep your heart functioning at its best, allowing you to walk up stairs, lift grandchildren, play a round of golf and do the activities you desire.
If you aren't already exercising, here's how you can safely get started. After all, it's never too late to start exercising ›
An exercise regimen aimed at improving your heart health should address two key factors: intensity and duration, says Dr. Brian Kim, a UC Irvine Health sports medicine specialist.
He offers these tips:
Find your target heart rate
During vigorous or moderate-intensity exercise, your heart rate should reach and stay within a target range.
"A target heart rate is different for different people," Kim says. "It depends on what your body is capable of, your previous levels of training and your age."
Your doctor can help you establish a target heart rate when you first start exercising or you can use a simple calculation (see box).
Activity trackers with heart rate monitors are also useful to see how hard you're working, as well as calories burned and total steps in a day. The devices tend to motivate and remind people to work out, Kim says.
Be mindful that target heart rate changes over time, he says.
"You need to have a good goal to start with and it can be adjusted over time as you train. The heart is a big muscle. The stronger you make it, the more efficient it is."
Start exercising — and hit your target
To get your heart rate into your target zone, engage in exercise that's at least moderate in intensity, such as:
- Brisk walking
"That means getting your heart rate up to a point where you can feel the exertion, but you can still speak to someone next to you. You're winded, but you are not pushing yourself so hard that you can't speak," Kim says.
American Heart Association guidelines suggest a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise to maintain heart and lung health. The 150 minutes of exercise should be divided among three to five different days.
The American Heart Association also recommends adding two days a week of strength training or resistance training to strengthen bones and joints, he says.
In addition, studies show people who move throughout the day — taking stairs at work or getting up from a desk to stretch, for example — augment their cardiovascular fitness.
"The biggest mistake people make is not exercising enough," Kim says. "Incidental movement throughout the day really matters even if you go to the gym for an hour that same day. You need to find ways to get up and move throughout the day."
Is a doctor’s note needed?
You don't need to see a doctor to begin a light or moderate cardiovascular activity, even if you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
"But if you have symptoms such as chest pain or pressure, bad circulation in your legs or numbness in feet or hands, then you would want to see a doctor before starting your routine," say Kim, who frequently provides his services at the medical tent at 10K races and half-marathons. Related: 8 simple ways to improve your heart health ›
Fear sometimes prevents people from beginning an exercise program, he adds.
"People think, 'If I exercise, I may have a heart attack.' Unfortunately, there is a tiny percent of people who do experience a heart attack while exercising. However, over the course of several years, the risk of having a heart attack is much greater if you don't exercise than if you do exercise."
If you feel chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath or lightheaded during exercise, stop and see a doctor for an evaluation, he says. Talk to your doctor if you have questions or concerns.