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Exercising when you have heart disease

Nearly everyone can benefit from physical activity, including people who have heart disease. In fact, exercise may play a key role in your treatment.

If you have heart disease, that's no reason to hang up your walking shoes.

"Exercise is basically good for everyone," says Gerald Fletcher, MD, an American Heart Association (AHA) volunteer expert. "Just because you have a heart problem does not exclude you from exercise."

In fact, exercise is often a significant part of a person's heart disease treatment plan.

Being physically active can help you control heart disease and reduce your risk of a first or second heart attack. And if you have heart failure, regular moderate exercise can help your heart get stronger and improve your quality of life, according to the AHA.

Reasons to move

Exercise has many health benefits. For example, it can:

Make daily activities easier. Aerobic activities—such as walking, cycling or swimming—improve the fitness of your heart and lungs. As you build endurance, you may have more energy for everyday activities with less shortness of breath.

Protect your heart. Even modest amounts of aerobic activity done regularly help modify factors that can make heart disease worse. For example, it can help you:

  • Lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Control blood sugar if you have diabetes.

Brighten your outlook. Exercise can improve your mood and well-being, and it may help you sleep better and have less anxiety and depression.

See your doctor first

Before you start exercising, check with your doctor. You need to find out what types and amounts of activity are safe and effective for you.

Your doctor may recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program, especially if you've had a recent heart attack, heart surgery, angina or other cardiac event. These medically supervised programs teach you to exercise safely and show you how to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.

"Cardiac rehab is ideal for most patients, at least for the first three months after their heart event," Dr. Fletcher says.

If you can't participate in cardiac rehab, ask your doctor to help plan an exercise program you can follow at home. You may need an exercise stress test, which usually involves exercising on a treadmill while your heart is monitored. The results can help your doctor develop a safe exercise program for you.

How much and what types?

The exercise program your doctor recommends might include:

Aerobic exercise. Many people who have heart disease are advised to work toward at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activities—such as brisk walking or riding a bike—at least five days a week, according to the AHA. You don't have to do it all at once. Exercising in 10-minute blocks will improve your health.

Resistance exercise. These are activities, such as lifting weights, that build muscle strength. Your doctor may suggest that you do resistance exercises two or three times a week. A typical workout might include 10 to 15 repetitions of various activities that work your major muscle groups.

It's important to start slowly, work your way up and follow your doctor's advice. He or she can also tell you about warning signs to watch for when exercising—such as chest pain, dizziness or breathlessness—and what to do if they occur.

A change for the better

If you aren't already exercising regularly, talk to your doctor about getting started.

"It's not too late to change your lifestyle," Dr. Fletcher says. "People in their 60s and 80s are doing this, and some of them have had heart problems. If properly prescribed, they can do it very safely and very effectively."

reviewed 10/3/2019

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