Your heart is a muscle that needs regular exercise just like all your other muscles. If it gets flabby, it won’t work well for you. An unhealthy heart is not an option.
More than 250,000 deaths per year in the United States are due to a lack of regular physical activity. Your fitness level is the most important predictor of death, exceeding all other key risk factors such as smoking or high blood pressure.
Without a strong heart, your life could be spent doing a lot less of what you want to do and too much of what you’d rather avoid. You’ll be spending more time with doctors instead of traveling, enjoying your family or hobbies. A flabby heart can shorten your life.
If you aren’t active on a regular basis, here’s what happens:
- You are twice as likely to develop heart disease, compared to an active person.
- You will have more doctor and hospital visits.
- You will have more illness and live with more serious chronic conditions.
- You will take more medications.
- Your risk of dying sooner increases.
- Your health will cost you more in co-payments and deductibles, medicine costs and lost productivity.
How it works
Exercise helps your body and mind in so many ways because it improves oxygen use. Regular exercise improves muscle function and strength, making it easier for your body to take in and use oxygen. As oxygen use improves, you can do normal daily activities with less fatigue and breathlessness. Exercise improves blood vessels’ capacity to expand in response to activity and be more effective at getting oxygen throughout your body.
Low cost ways to a strong heart
Adding a small amount of exercise to your day is a low-cost way to ensure you have a healthy heart. And, you’ll save money on your health care costs.
You don’t have to be a super athlete to gain heart benefits from exercise. The most gain, in terms of avoiding death, occurs when a person goes from being sedentary to moderately active. Fewer benefits are gained when a person goes from moderately active to very active. However, more activity translates into greater weight loss and quicker overall conditioning.
- Being active doesn’t require a lot of time or expense. You need a pair of supportive walking shoes. Don’t think you can get by with a worn-out pair because their support does wear out. Don’t risk ankle or foot injury when you’re just getting started. Also, drink water before and after you exercise.
- Don’t overthink exercise. Something as simple as a 10-minute walk, three times a day, on most days of the week, can reduce heart disease risk. Or, try cycling, swimming, house cleaning or yard work.
- If you hate to exercise, ask yourself why. Are you too tired? Too busy? Prefer watching television or enjoying the internet? Are you afraid to exercise because of other health problems? People who know the benefits of staying physically active can use these same excuses – but they don’t.
- Risk factors for heart disease are reduced by regular physical activity – it strengthens your heart muscle; reduces high blood pressure (hypertension), cholesterol, diabetes and being overweight.
- Activity builds stamina, improves balance, gives you more energy and helps you sleep better. It strengthens your lungs, muscles, joints and bones.
- Activity can reduce your risk of stroke, colon and other cancers, depression, stress, anxiety and many other health problems.
14 Tips to stay motivated
- Exercise with people you like.
- Choose activities or games you enjoy. If walking or going to a gym are not for you, try dancing, gardening or yard work, bicycling with your children, yoga, or a game of basketball or tennis. Making exercise fun is the best way to stay motivated and make it a habit for life. If you still hate to exercise, that’s OK. Let the results be what motivates you.
- Try new activities until you have several that you can rotate doing throughout each week. Variety will fight boredom and push your body in different ways to build overall conditioning. Revisit the activities you enjoyed as a child.
- Schedule activity into your day – make it a daily habit. Literally write it down like an important appointment, because it is! Walk your dog, walk your child, walk at the mall, walk as you talk on your cell phone, walk in place as you watch TV, take the stairs, dance in your living room, take a walk after dinner instead of having dessert.
- Exercise first thing in the morning. Your whole day will go better, and you’ll avoid the excuse of being too tired in the evening. Any moderately intense activity or game will work if you’re breathing heavier but can keep up a conversation without gasping. If you can’t, slow down a bit.
- Combine exercise with a task that’s already part of your routine like walking the dog, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking far from the store entrance.
- Start slow and gradually build up your time or distance to avoid injury. If you’ve been inactive and are over age 50, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Tell him or her what prescription and over-the-counter drugs you’re taking, any chronic conditions you have, and if you easily lose your balance, or feel breathless after mild exertion.
- Set achievable goals for yourself, in terms of distance, time, or weight or inches lost. Be specific – “get more exercise” is too vague to be effective. For example, if you want to lose weight, you’ll need to be active for 60-90 minutes on most days. Adults need to burn an extra 3,500 calories a week to lose one pound.
- Share your activity goals with friends and family. Ask for their help to reinforce your efforts and provide motivation.
- Track your progress on a phone app, calendar or pedometer. Try My Fitness Pal app, a comprehensive and easy-to-use diet and exercise tracker.
- Join a group activity such as a walking club at a shopping mall, Zumba or yoga classes, or a square-dance group. It increases socialization and makes exercise more fun.
- Have a “Plan B” when the weather, events or a temporary injury keep you from exercising. Bad weather? Stop by the mall on your way home from work for a brisk walk or climb some stairs. Twisted ankle? Work on your upper body strength with hand weights.
- Frequently remind yourself of your original reasons for exercising. Saving money on your health is a good place to start.
- Don’t give in to negative thoughts about yourself or your fitness goals. Stay positive about your reasons for exercising. Focus just on today’s fitness plan and be proud of yourself when you accomplish it. Every morning is a new opportunity to get fit.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing 500,000 Americans every year. Others live with permanent disabilities from heart disease. That’s your future if you don’t have a strong heart.
Think about it. Are feeling good and being healthy more important to you than disability or death? No one can make you be active; it is your choice.
For more information
- “Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart” at /nih.gov/health/public/heart
- We Can! Web site at http://wecan.nhlbi.nih.gov