The best exercise to take for people with heart conditions, angina and high blood pressure.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Dr Roger Henderson
Getting regular exercise when you have heart disease is important, because physical activity is good for the heart and circulation, can strengthen your heart muscle and helps to manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Research has shown that regular physical activity can also speed recovery from a heart attack and can also help to prevent symptoms worsening if you already have heart disease or a risk factor such as high blood pressure.
But how much exercise is it safe to take, what type, are their risks to consider and how do you get started? We investigate:
The heart health benefits of exercise
Exercise can help heart disease in the following ways:
- Exercise lowers blood pressure, reducing strain on the heart.
- Exercise increases good HDL cholesterolthat transports fat away from the arteries and back to the liver for processing.
- Exercise may reduce levels of bad LDL cholesterol that can form fatty deposits in the arteries and contribute to heart disease.
- Exercise improves circulation by preventing blood clotsthat can lead to heart attack and stroke.
- Exercise increases fat loss, aids weight-loss and builds muscle mass.
❤️ Regular exercise also reduces stress by releasing feel-good hormones called endorphins, while conversely stress and anxiety can elevate blood pressure and slow recovery from a heart attack.
How much exercise should you take?
If you have heart problems, you should aim to exercise for 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week. It’s best to spread this out over seven days and you can split it into manageable chunks – for example a 10 minute walk to and from the bus stop to your place of work.
If you have heart problems, aim to exercise for 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week.
You should also aim to do exercise which strengthens your muscles twice a week too. This is the target amount so don’t start with this if you haven’t exercised before. Even a few minutes is better than nothing. You can gradually build up the time you spend exercising.
The best exercise for heart health
The best exercise for your heart is aerobic activity. Any exercise that makes you feel a little out of breath counts; you should still be able to talk but not sing while exercising. Swimming, brisk walking, running, cycling, dancing are all types of aerobic activity.
Muscle strengthening exercise means anything that works large groups of muscles such as your legs, arms and shoulders, for example digging your garden, carrying shopping or climbing stairs.
Exercise and diet
The important thing is to combine exercise with a balanced diet including the following key food groups:
How to exercise if you have heart problems
For exercise to be effective it needs to raise your heart beat. While for the general population this is a good thing, people with heart problems need to take care not to put the heart under too much pressure. To get started try the following:
✔️ To minimise any strain on your heart, start slowly, build up to a maximum pace and then slow down before the end of the session. Keep to a moderate intensity so you can still talk while you exercise.
✔️ Always warm up at the start of a session, and take time to cool down at the end with some simple stretches.
✔️ If you exercise regularly it will be making you healthier. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to see weight loss. Many of the benefits of exercise are not related to losing weight.
✔️ You will quickly begin to notice that you feel fitter and can walk up stairs and hills more easily or go a bit further than you used to.
Heart health and exercise risks
People with heart problems should always check with their doctor or heart specialist before starting any exercise programme.
Most people can take regular exercise at a level that benefits them. To start with this may mean a daily five-minute walk and then building it up by five minutes each week.
If necessary your doctor can send you for an ECG (electrocardiogram) exercise test on a running machine or exercise bike to find out how much activity is safe for you to do.
- Heart attack or heart surgery
If you’ve recently had heart surgery, you may be able to take part in a cardiac rehabilitation programme that will set a safe level for exercise.
- Chest pains (angina)
Try to exercise regularly, but take care your chosen activity doesn’t cause chest pains or make you too out of breath. Walking is a good activity. Start slowly, and only increase the distance and speed when you can comfortably manage your existing walk. Don’t exercise after a heavy meal or in cold weather. Take your spray or tablets with you when you exercise.
- Heart failure
If you have heart failure so your heart doesn’t pump as well as it should, your doctor may tell you to limit activity if exercise gives you palpitations or you have other heart conditions such as a narrowed heart valve. Start slowly and only increase when you feel comfortable at your existing level. Stop if ankle swelling and breathlessness are more than usual.
- High blood pressure
Try to exercise regularly, but avoid intense exercise such as competitive sport and heavy weightlifting if your blood pressure is not well controlled. Vigorous activities like these can cause a sudden sharp increase in your blood pressure that could be dangerous.