Your heart, about the size of your fist, is a highly efficient pump. It pumps nearly 2,000 gallons of blood every day, or 5-1/2 quarts a minute. It also beats 100,000 times a day. Unlike other muscles, your heart muscle doesn't tire from use.
But your heart is like other muscles in that it needs exercise to work at its best. What kind of exercise would that be? Cardiovascular exercise (cardio), also known as aerobic exercise. Ideally, a brisk 30- to 40-minute walk, 4 to 5 days each week, will achieve the best results. If you don't have time for 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity activity all at once, you can break it down into 2 or 3 smaller periods of time each day and get the same benefits.
In fact, any activity that repeats and involves some vigorous movement of large muscles like brisk walking, jogging, swimming, or bicycling is good for your heart. Other activities such as taking the stairs instead of riding the elevator or mowing the lawn can increase your heart health.
When you exercise, you are training your heart to work better under pressure. Exercise forces your heart to supply your muscles with more oxygen and energy than is needed during rest. It also flushes out wastes that pile up in the muscles faster than when you are at rest. The result? A fit heart that can fill with blood and squeeze it out more efficiently.
Here's what a heart-smart exercise routine should include:
At least 5 minutes of warm-up. Starting your exercise session gradually helps prevent injury to your muscles and joints and minimizes aches and pains later. Take some deep breaths. If you are planning on a vigorous workout, make your warm-up period longer.
Moderate exercise. Exercise moderately for at least 30 minutes, 5 days each week. Don't exercise to the point of total breathlessness. You should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising.
A cool down. Let your body cool down by walking or pedaling slowly for at least 5 minutes and gradually return to rest. Do some gentle stretches to keep your body limber and flexible.
When starting an exercise program, particularly if you haven't been active, start easily and slowly increase the intensity and length of the activity. Choose activities that you will want to do every day. Remember, before starting a new exercise program, check with your healthcare provider first. This is very important if you have a long-term health problem or take medicines daily.
You will also benefit from lower-intensity activities like housework, gardening, and walking for pleasure.