The benefits of regular exercise are almost innumerable. From making us feel happy, maintaining a healthy weight, socialising with others and reducing our risk of a myriad diseases, exercising seems to be a cure-all for almost any ailment. And exercising regularly is particularly important for your heart in order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lower your blood pressure and keep your cholesterol levels healthy. The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity or a combination of the two every week in order to receive maximum health benefits for your entire body. So what exercises can we be doing to keep our hearts in the best shape?
Running is perhaps the first exercise that comes to mind when we think of “cardio”, cardio being one of the main categories of exercise along with strength training, flexibility and endurance exercises. Cardio encompasses any exercise which raises your heart rate. Your heart beats faster when it is under strain, as is the case with any intense activity, and when you run you experience prolonged exposure to this “strain”, which in turn strengthens your heart muscle. Running has been found to lower your resting heart rate, lower stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, lower your level of blood fat and increase oxygen levels and circulation around your body.
Swimming is a fantastic exercise for people of all abilities and is very low impact on your body, as the buoyancy of the water protects your joints and muscles from excessive strain. Swimming, while providing a cardio workout and burning up to 600 calories an hour, also doubles as resistance training, as your body forces its way through the water. This means you build muscle as you swim, which in turn boosts your metabolism, burning excessive fat and lowering your body weight.
While you may think only cardio workouts are good for your heart, weight training shouldn’t be overlooked as a fantastic way to boost heart health. One study has found that lifting weights for less than an hour a week may reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70 percent. Building muscle allows you to burn more fat, strengthens both your joints and bones (making cardio workouts that much easier and more effective) and boosts your metabolism, all of which mitigate risk factors of heart disease, such as being overweight and having high blood pressure.
Tai Chi is an incredibly gentle exercise originating in China which embraces the mind, body and spirit. Incorporating martial arts style movement, tai chi is practiced for both its self defence and health benefits. Tai Chi benefits the heart in a range of ways; the slow, deep breathing practiced during the sport helps increase oxygen in the blood, the calm movements can help with stress, while the fact that it is practiced standing, rather than sitting or lying like yoga, makes it accessible to those suffering from heart health issues who are in a weakened state. The gentle, flowing movements mean you never over extend your joints and ligaments while practicing tai chi, and it allows you to strengthen all the major muscles groups gently as you exercise the upper and lower sections of your body.
Walking is a great exercise firstly, because of its accessibility; anyone can walk, requiring no special skills or level of fitness. Walking can easily be built into your routine, whether you walk to work or go for an evening stroll with your family or friends, making you more likely to engage in it regularly. A great exercise option for those who don’t like to push themselves to the point of breathlessness, walking can help strengthen your heart, reduce vascular stiffness, keep your weight at a healthy level and lower cholesterol and blood fat.
One of the best things you can do for your heart, and entire body, is to exercise. And with so many enjoyable options, making a big difference to your heart health can be as simple as choosing what type of exercise you enjoy and making it part of your routine.
 Yanghui Liu, Duck-chul Lee, Yehua Li, Weicheng Zhu, Riquan Zhang, Xuemei Sui, Carl J. Lavie, Steven N. Blair. Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2018; 1 DOI: