What's the Best Exercise for Heart Health?

Dr. Amir

You’re probably already aware of the remarkable health benefits of exercise. Not only does it help to trim and tone your body, it strengthens the most important muscle in the body – the heart. In the big scheme of things, training your heart may be the most important benefit to be gained from a good workout. So, what’s the best type of exercise to accomplish this? Is there one form of aerobic exercise better than another?

Is there a “best” way to strengthen your heart?

Almost any kind of exercise can be effective for training your heart as long as it keeps your heart rate within the heart rate training zone which is around seventy percent of your maximal heart rate. Maximal heart rate is determined by subtracting your age from 212. For example, if you’re forty years old, your maximal heart rate would be 172 and seventy percent of that would be 121, making this figure your aerobic target heart rate. As long as your heart rate reaches this level or higher for a period of thirty minutes, which could be accomplished through fast walking, running, jumping rope, riding an exercise bike or any other fast paced exercise, you should be giving your heart a strength training workout.

This may not be the most effective way.

Although it’s been conventionally thought that you needed to exercise at a continuous pace for at least thirty or forty minutes to strengthen your heart, new studies are showing that there’s a more effective way to maximize cardiovascular health and that’s by using interval training. With interval training, instead of working at the same pace for thirty to forty minutes, you would alternate short periods of intense activity with periods of lower intensity exercise. For example, you might walk on the treadmill for three minutes and then run at a rapid pace for one minute, alternating back and forth. During the intense intervals of exercise, you would try to keep your heart rate up to eighty to ninety percent of maximal heart rate. In the previous example of a forty year old person, this would be around between 140 and 155.

Is there proof that interval training is better for training your heart?

In a study conducted in rats and published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, interval training was shown to be superior to continuous moderate exercise in terms of cardiovascular benefits in rats and even reduced the effects of metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor to diabetes and heart disease. Another study published in the journal Circulation showed that interval training helped to strengthen the heart muscle more than did moderate, continuous exercise in a group of heart failure patients. Other studies have also supported the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic interval training.

How can you use aerobic interval training to strengthen your heart?

Simply pick an exercise you enjoy such as fast walking, running, jumping rope, or riding a bike. Exercise at a slow steady pace for two to three minutes and then intensely for one minute. During that minute, exercise with enough intensity that you’re unable to talk comfortably and requires focus to maintain. It may help to wear a heart rate monitor to be sure you’re reaching eighty to ninety percent of your maximal heart rate during the intense intervals. Continue alternating back and forth with low intensity followed by high intensity movements for twenty to thirty minutes. Using this method to strengthen your heart, you should quickly see results. Repeat this workout two to three times per week.

Of course it’s best to see your doctor before starting any type of exercise plan, particularly one that involves interval training. Once you get a clean bill of health, give this method of training your heart a try. It really works.

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