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Physical Activity and Your Heart

June 23, 2021

Physical activity is any body movement that works your muscles and requires more energy than resting. Walking, running, dancing, swimming, yoga, and gardening are a few examples of physical activity. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americansexternal link physical activity generally refers to movement that enhances health. Exercise is a type of physical activity that’s planned and structured. Lifting weights, taking an aerobics class, and playing on a sports team are examples of exercise.

Physical activity is good for many parts of your body. This article focuses on the benefits of physical activity for your heart and lungs. The article also provides tips for getting started and staying active. Physical activity is one part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. A heart-healthy lifestyle also involves following a heart-healthy eatingaiming for a healthy weightmanaging stress, and quitting smoking.

Outlook

Being physically active is one of the best ways to keep your heart and lungs healthy. Following a healthy diet and not smoking are other important ways to keep your heart and lungs healthy. Many Americans are not active enough. The good news, though, is that even modest amounts of physical activity are good for your health. The more active you are, the more you will benefit.

The four main types of physical activity are aerobic, muscle-strengthening, bone-strengthening, and stretching. Aerobic activity is the type that benefits your heart and lungs the most.

Aerobic Activity

Aerobic activity moves your large muscles, such as those in your arms and legs. Running, swimming, walking, bicycling, dancing, and doing jumping jacks are examples of aerobic activity. Aerobic activity also is called endurance activity.

Aerobic activity makes your heart beat faster than usual. You also breathe harder during this type of activity. Over time, regular aerobic activity makes your heart and lungs stronger and able to work better.

Other Types of Physical Activity

The other types of physical activity—muscle-strengthening, bone strengthening, and stretching—benefit your body in other ways.

Muscle-strengthening activities improve the strength, power, and endurance of your muscles. Doing pushups and situps, lifting weights, climbing stairs, and digging in the garden are examples of muscle-strengthening activities.

With bone-strengthening activities, your feet, legs, or arms support your body’s weight, and your muscles push against your bones. This helps make your bones strong. Running, walking, jumping rope, and lifting weights are examples of bone-strengthening activities.

Muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities also can be aerobic, depending on whether they make your heart and lungs work harder than usual. For example, running is both an aerobic activity and a bone-strengthening activity.

Stretching helps improve your flexibility and your ability to fully move your joints. Touching your toes, doing side stretches, and doing yoga exercises are examples of stretching.

Levels of Intensity in Aerobic Activity

You can do aerobic activity with light, moderate, or vigorous intensity. Moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activities are better for your heart than light-intensity activities. However, even light-intensity activities are better than no activity at all.

The level of intensity depends on how hard you have to work to do the activity. To do the same activity, people who are less fit usually have to work harder than people who are more fit. So, for example, what is light-intensity activity for one person may be moderate-intensity for another.

LIGHT- AND MODERATE-INTENSITY ACTIVITIES

Light-intensity activities are common daily activities that don’t require much effort.

Moderate-intensity activities make your heart, lungs, and muscles work harder than light-intensity activities do.

On a scale of 0 to 10, moderate-intensity activity is a 5 or 6 and produces noticeable increases in breathing and heart rate. A person doing moderate-intensity activity can talk but not sing.

VIGOROUS-INTENSITY ACTIVITIES

Vigorous-intensity activities make your heart, lungs, and muscles work hard. On a scale of 0 to 10, vigorous-intensity activity is a 7 or 8. A person doing vigorous-intensity activity can’t say more than a few words without stopping for a breath.

Examples of Aerobic Activities

Below are examples of aerobic activities. Depending on your level of fitness, they can be light, moderate, or vigorous in intensity:

  • Pushing a grocery cart around a store
  • Gardening, such as digging or hoeing that causes your heart rate to go up
  • Walking, hiking, jogging, running
  • Water aerobics or swimming laps
  • Bicycling, skateboarding, rollerblading, and jumping rope
  • Ballroom dancing and aerobic dancing
  • Tennis, soccer, hockey, and basketball

Physical activity has many health benefits. These benefits apply to people of all ages and races and both sexes.

For example, physical activity helps you maintain a healthy weight and makes it easier to do daily tasks, such as climbing stairs and shopping.

Physically active adults are at lower risk for depression and declines in cognitive function as they get older. (Cognitive function includes thinking, learning, and judgment skills.) Physically active children and teens may have fewer symptoms of depression than their peers.

Physical activity also lowers your risk for many diseases, such as coronary heart disease (CHD), diabetes, and cancer.

Many studies have shown the clear benefits of physical activity for your heart and lungs.

Physical Activity Strengthens Your Heart and Improves Lung Function

When done regularly, moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity strengthens your heart muscle. This improves your heart’s ability to pump blood to your lungs and throughout your body. As a result, more blood flows to your muscles, and oxygen levels in your blood rise.

Capillaries, your body’s tiny blood vessels, also widen. This allows them to deliver more oxygen to your body and carry away waste products.

Physical Activity Reduces Coronary Heart Disease Risk Factors

When done regularly, moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity can lower your risk for CHD. CHD is a condition in which a waxy substance called plaque (plak) builds up inside your coronary arteries. These arteries supply your heart muscle with oxygen-rich blood.

Plaque narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow to your heart muscle. Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture (break open). This causes a blood clot to form on the surface of the plaque.

If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block blood flow through a coronary artery. Blocked blood flow to the heart muscle causes a heart attack.

Certain traits, conditions, or habits may raise your risk for CHD. Physical activity can help control some of these risk factors because it:

  • Can lower blood pressure and triglyceride. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood.
  • Can raise HDL cholesterol levels. HDL sometimes is called “good” cholesterol.
  • Helps your body manage blood sugar and insulin levels, which lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Reduces levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in your body. This protein is a sign of inflammation. High levels of CRP may suggest an increased risk for CHD.
  • Helps reduce overweight and obesity when combined with a reduced-calorie diet. Physical activity also helps you maintain a healthy weight over time once you have lost weight.
  • May help you quit smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for CHD.

Inactive people are more likely to develop CHD than people who are physically active. Studies suggest that inactivity is a major risk factor for CHD, just like high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and smoking.

Physical Activity Reduces Heart Attack Risk

For people who have CHD, aerobic activity done regularly helps the heart work better. It also may reduce the risk of a second heart attack in people who already have had heart attacks.

Vigorous aerobic activity may not be safe for people who have CHD. Ask your doctor what types of activity are safe for you.

In general, the benefits of regular physical activity far outweigh risks to the heart and lungs.

Rarely, heart problems occur as a result of physical activity. Examples of these problems include arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs), sudden cardiac arrest, and heart attack. These events generally happen to people who already have heart conditions.

The risk of heart problems due to physical activity is higher for youth and young adults who have congenital (kon-JEN-ih-tal) heart problems. The term “congenital” means the heart problem has been present since birth.

Congenital heart problems include hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (KAR-de-o-mi-OP-ah-thee), congenital heart defects, and myocarditis (MI-o-KAR-di-tis). People who have these conditions should ask their doctors what types of physical activity are safe for them.

For middle-aged and older adults, the risk of heart problems due to physical activity is related to coronary heart disease (CHD). People who have CHD are more likely to have a heart attack when they’re exercising vigorously than when they’re not.

The risk of heart problems due to physical activity is related to your fitness level and the intensity of the activity you’re doing. For example, someone who isn’t physically fit is at higher risk for a heart attack during vigorous activity than a person who is physically fit.

If you have a heart problem or chronic (ongoing) disease—such as heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure—ask your doctor what types of physical activity are safe for you. You also should talk with your doctor about safe physical activities if you have symptoms such as chest pain or dizziness.

Guidelines for Children and Youth

The guidelines advise that:

  • Children and youth do 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day. Activities should vary and be a good fit for their age and physical development. Children are naturally active, especially when they’re involved in unstructured play (like recess). Any type of activity counts toward the advised 60 minutes or more.
  • Most physical activity should be moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Examples include walking, running, skipping, playing on the playground, playing basketball, and biking.
  • Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity should be included at least 3 days a week. Examples include running, doing jumping jacks, and fast swimming.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities should be included at least 3 days a week. Examples include playing on playground equipment, playing tug-of-war, and doing pushups and pullups.
  • Bone-strengthening activities should be included at least 3 days a week. Examples include hopping, skipping, doing jumping jacks, playing volleyball, and working with resistance bands.

Children and youth who have disabilities should work with their doctors to find out what types and amounts of physical activity are safe for them. When possible, these children should meet the recommendations in the guidelines.

Some experts also advise that children and youth reduce screen time because it limits time for physical activity. They recommend that children aged 2 and older should spend no more than 2 hours a day watching television or using a computer (except for school work).

Guidelines for Adults

The guidelines advise that:

  • Some physical activity is better than none. Inactive adults should gradually increase their level of activity. People gain health benefits from as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
  • For major health benefits, do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity each week. Another option is to do a combination of both. A general rule is that 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity counts the same as 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity.
  • For even more health benefits, do 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of vigorous-intensity activity each week (or a combination of both). The more active you are, the more you will benefit.
  • When doing aerobic activity, do it for at least 10 minutes at a time. Spread the activity throughout the week. Muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or vigorous intensity should be included 2 or more days a week. These activities should work all of the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms). Examples include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, and doing sit-ups and pushups, yoga, and heavy gardening.

Guidelines for Adults Aged 65 or Older

The guidelines advise that:

  • Older adults should be physically active. Older adults who do any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits. If inactive, older adults should gradually increase their activity levels and avoid vigorous activity at first.
  • Older adults should follow the guidelines for adults, if possible. Do a variety of activities, including walking. Walking has been shown to provide health benefits and a low risk of injury.
  • If you can’t do 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of activity each week, be as physically active as your abilities and condition allow.
  • You should do balance exercises if you’re at risk for falls. Examples include walking backward or sideways, standing on one leg, and standing from a sitting position several times in a row.
  • If you have a chronic (ongoing) condition—such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes—ask your doctor what types and amounts of activity are safe for you.

Guidelines for Women During Pregnancy and Soon After Delivery

The guidelines advise that:

  • You should ask your doctor what physical activities are safe to do during pregnancy and after delivery.
  • If you’re healthy but not already active, do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. If possible, spread this activity across the week.
  • If you’re already active, you can continue being active as long as you stay healthy and talk with your doctor about your activity level throughout your pregnancy.
  • After the first 3 months of pregnancy, you shouldn’t do exercises that involve lying on your back.
  • You shouldn’t do activities in which you might fall or hurt yourself, such as horseback riding, downhill skiing, soccer, and basketball.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has released physical activity guidelines for all Americans aged 6 and older.

The guidelines recommend the types and amounts of physical activity that children, adults, older adults, and other groups should do. The guidelines also provide tips for how to fit physical activity into your daily life.

The information below is based on the HHS guidelines.

Guidelines for Children and Youth

The guidelines advise that:

  • Children and youth do 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day. Activities should vary and be a good fit for their age and physical development. Children are naturally active, especially when they’re involved in unstructured play (like recess). Any type of activity counts toward the advised 60 minutes or more.
  • Most physical activity should be moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Examples include walking, running, skipping, playing on the playground, playing basketball, and biking.
  • Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity should be included at least 3 days a week. Examples include running, doing jumping jacks, and fast swimming.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities should be included at least 3 days a week. Examples include playing on playground equipment, playing tug-of-war, and doing pushups and pullups.
  • Bone-strengthening activities should be included at least 3 days a week. Examples include hopping, skipping, doing jumping jacks, playing volleyball, and working with resistance bands.

Children and youth who have disabilities should work with their doctors to find out what types and amounts of physical activity are safe for them. When possible, these children should meet the recommendations in the guidelines.

Some experts also advise that children and youth reduce screen time because it limits time for physical activity. They recommend that children aged 2 and older should spend no more than 2 hours a day watching television or using a computer (except for school work).

Guidelines for Adults

The guidelines advise that:

  • Some physical activity is better than none. Inactive adults should gradually increase their level of activity. People gain health benefits from as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
  • For major health benefits, do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity each week. Another option is to do a combination of both. A general rule is that 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity counts the same as 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity.
  • For even more health benefits, do 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of vigorous-intensity activity each week (or a combination of both). The more active you are, the more you will benefit.
  • When doing aerobic activity, do it for at least 10 minutes at a time. Spread the activity throughout the week. Muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or vigorous intensity should be included 2 or more days a week. These activities should work all of the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms). Examples include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, and doing situps and pushups, yoga, and heavy gardening.

Guidelines for Adults Aged 65 or Older

The guidelines advise that:

  • Older adults should be physically active. Older adults who do any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits. If inactive, older adults should gradually increase their activity levels and avoid vigorous activity at first.
  • Older adults should follow the guidelines for adults, if possible. Do a variety of activities, including walking. Walking has been shown to provide health benefits and a low risk of injury.
  • If you can’t do 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of activity each week, be as physically active as your abilities and condition allow.
  • You should do balance exercises if you’re at risk for falls. Examples include walking backward or sideways, standing on one leg, and standing from a sitting position several times in a row.
  • If you have a chronic (ongoing) condition—such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes—ask your doctor what types and amounts of activity are safe for you.

Guidelines for Women During Pregnancy and Soon After Delivery

The guidelines advise that:

  • You should ask your doctor what physical activities are safe to do during pregnancy and after delivery.
  • If you’re healthy but not already active, do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. If possible, spread this activity across the week.
  • If you’re already active, you can continue being active as long as you stay healthy and talk with your doctor about your activity level throughout your pregnancy.
  • After the first 3 months of pregnancy, you shouldn’t do exercises that involve lying on your back.
  • You shouldn’t do activities in which you might fall or hurt yourself, such as horseback riding, downhill skiing, soccer, and basketball.