The benefits of exercising daily are immense – from lowering high blood pressure, to aiding weight loss, and improving heart and lung health. But people with heart conditions may worry that exercise could put them at risk for heart attack.
Fortunately, regular aerobic exercise is generally safe for those diagnosed with heart failure, experts say — as long as it’s moderate and not too intense.
“Daily aerobic activity in reasonable amounts is the one thing we know that’s really beneficial and can improve outcomes for heart patients,” says Dr. Zubin Eapen, associate professor of medicine at Duke University.
Eapen says many doctors and patients view cardiac rehab as an option when it’s actually an essential part of getting better and feeling better. Once you’ve finished an exercise program recommended by a doctor or rehabilitation specialist, the idea is to continue exercising safely to maintain or improve your heart function.
Eapen stresses that it’s important to check with your physician before beginning any type of exercise, and begin with five or 10 minutes of stretching to warm up.
“Generally speaking, your goal is to aim for 25 to 30 minutes of some type of sustained, low-level aerobic activity a day — not once or twice a week — every day,” says Dr. Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology-medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Sudden movements, like those required to lift heavy weights sets, are not advised “because it puts a considerable load on the heart,” Yancy says. “When you do that to a heart muscle that’s already weak, you can actually cause more weakening, or even an irregular heart rhythm.”
Here are seven exercise options that are safe for anyone, even those with heart failure.
The No. 1 rated aerobic activity for heart patients is walking. According to the American Heart Association, a quick walk provides the same health benefits as intense running. A consistent walking routine can strengthen heart muscles and lower cholesterol levels.
Getting into a pool is a great way to get low-impact exercise and for strengthening your heart and lungs. “Even if you’re not a swimmer, there are lots of ways to get creative in the pool,” says Eapen. “Think about walking in the shallow end or doing light water aerobics. Those activities aren’t just good for cardiovascular fitness. From an orthopedic perspective, the water’s buoyancy cushions the body, making it easier on the joints.”
Pedaling on a bike — mobile or stationary — is a great way to work the heart and lungs without putting stress on the back, hips, knees, or ankles. Yancy says if you’re going to go outside versus on a stationary bike, it’s important to keep an eye on the weather. Avoid extreme temperatures which can make circulation and breathing more difficult.
The elliptical machine offers a good low-impact workout. The cross-trainer machine allows you to adjust the resistance depending on your fitness level. You can exercise both your arms and legs for a full body workout, which is great for heart patients, according to the Mayo Clinic.
With physician approval, tennis is a great activity for heart patients. A study published in the Journal Of Sports Science & Medicine found that low-risk patients who’d had heart attacks found that tennis resulted in “physiological changes that reduced cardiovascular risk.”
“In the right climate, and under the right circumstances, gardening is a great example of aerobic activity that patients can enjoy,” says Eapen. Just make sure to watch out for the heat and stay hydrated, Eapen says.
Research from Johns Hopkins University shows that practicing yoga has health benefits for those with cardiovascular issues, including heart failure. Eapen says certain types of yoga may be safer for heart patients than others. People with high blood pressure, he says, may need to modify certain poses.
“While we don’t have much hard evidence, any activities that may reduce stress and anxiety — which includes yoga, as well as tai chi and meditation — are good for heart patients, and actually for everybody,” Eapen says.
“There’s some interesting research suggesting that there’s actually a physiological benefit on blood vessels shortly after you do yoga — a sustained benefit. So though we can’t quite say it’s therapeutic, for what it does for some patients — peace of mind, relaxation, and stress reduction — that makes sense to me.”
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