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Categories > Exercise and Fitness > Benefits of exercise

Giving your heart a workout
What happens when you exercise
Exercises that help your heart
Finding your pace

Get your doctor’s OK
Get your doctor’s OK

Your healthcare provider will likely support your fitness efforts and may offer specific guidelines based on your health. Check with him or her if any of the following apply to you:

  • chest pain or pain in the neck or arm
  • shortness of breath
  • a diagnosed heart condition or you take heart or blood pressure medication
  • joint or bone problems
  • dizziness
  • an inactive lifestyle

Still on the fence about making the commitment to exercise? Consider what exercise can do for one of your body’s most vital muscles—your heart.

Beating roughly 80 times each minute, the heart is constantly working to move oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood throughout your body. The heart’s tone, strength and function can be improved through regular exercise. And though it takes time to see exercise’s benefits in the mirror, your heart’s strength improves with each workout.

What happens when you exercise

Say you’re raking leaves. Pulling the leaves across the grass requires your arm muscles to work. And the more raking you do, the stronger your arm muscles become.

The same is true of your heart. As you work out, your body’s muscles demand more oxygen, requiring your heart to work harder to pump blood throughout your body. The more often you make your heart work harder, the stronger and more efficient it becomes. As your heart’s fitness improves, so does your blood circulation. And your resting heart rate—the number of times your heart beats when you’re not exercising—will likely decrease.

Exercise also promotes other positive changes in your body that ultimately benefit your heart, such as reducing blood pressure, improving cholesterol, lowering stress, boosting mood and burning excess calories to avoid weight gain.

Exercises that help your heart

While resistance or weight-training activities challenge the heart to some degree, aerobic exercise—sustained rhythmic exercise such as walking, running, swimming or dancing—is the surest way to improve your heart’s fitness.

If you’ve never exercised before, your doctor can help you design a program that’s right for you. Start slowly, with low-intensity exercises like walking, cycling or dancing. Work your way up to at least 30 minutes a day on most, if not all, days of the week. As you get stronger, strive for a moderate intensity level to increase the benefits to your heart. This means different things for different people: For some, walking may be moderate, but for others, a slow jog may feel moderate.

Finding your pace

To exercise at an intensity that will give your heart a workout, aim for your target heart rate, a percentage of your heart’s maximum beats per minute. To learn yours, subtract your age from 220. Strive for a rate that’s 50 percent to 75 percent of your maximum. To track your heart rate during exercise, use a heart rate monitor or take your pulse for 10 seconds, then multiply that number by six. Too slow? Step up your pace or intensity. Too fast? Slow down a bit.

As you become more fit and your heart adapts to the demands you’re placing on it, it’s important to continue to challenge your heart in new ways. Try new or more vigorous activities, incorporate higher intensity intervals, lengthen your workouts or add more sessions to your week.