Heart-Healthy Exercises: How To Strengthen Your Heart

Key Points

  • Heart-healthy exercises support good overall health, longevity, and quality of life.

  • Exercise, diet, sleep, lifestyle, and stress are the key contributing factors to heart health.

  • Cardio, strength training, and stretching are the best heart-healthy exercises. 

While cancer and car accidents get a lot of attention, it’s actually heart disease that’s the leading cause of death for American adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one person dies every 34 seconds from cardiovascular distress. While this statistic is both tragic and unbelievably sad, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are heart-healthy exercises, activities, and foods that all work to protect your health. 

Your heart doesn’t simply sustain your life – it also allows you to love and feel deeply. Whether you’re recuperating after a heart attack, recovering from heart surgery, suffering other heart-related problems, or looking for ways to avoid heart disease altogether, continue reading for a list of heart-healthy exercises to start implementing today.

What Are the Benefits of a Healthy Heart?

Your heart is the primary organ that keeps you alive! Not only does it pump blood that delivers essential oxygen and nutrients to every other part of your body, but it also helps to remove toxins and waste products from your system. 

A healthy heart is critical for preserving your health, longevity, and quality of life. It defends against diseases, bodily discomfort, and pain. Without a steadily beating heart, your body doesn’t function properly. 

Fun fact: The human heart beats approximately 100,000 times and pumps nearly 2,000 gallons of blood every single day. 

Now that would fill a lot of milk jugs. 

Healthy heart

What Are the Risk Factors of Heart Disease?

While heart attack risk factors such as gender, age, and genetics are completely uncontrollable, other elements are well within your control.

Below are the most common risk factors contributing to the onset of heart disease:

  • Smoking

  • High blood pressure (the number one cause of heart attacks)

  • High cholesterol

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes 

  • Poor diet

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Excessive alcohol consumption

  • Stress

  • Birth control pills

Review this list and identify which factors you need to eliminate or manage to nurture your heart health.

How Do You Improve and Control Your Heart Health?

Your heart has a very limited capacity to manufacture new muscle tissue and repair itself. After a heart attack, your heart can’t be fully restored because the rate of muscle regeneration is too slow. Instead, your heart speedily replaces the lost cardiac muscle with scar tissue. 

However, you can take strides to gradually earn your strength and energy back. Check out the following seven ways to improve and control your heart health:

Exercise Daily

Exercise is arguably the healthiest activity for your heart. Why? It strengthens your heart muscle and actively counteracts other serious health conditions linked to heart disease. 

Three main types of exercise support a healthy heart: aerobic exercise, resistance training, and stretching. 

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise, or cardio, improves blood flow and circulation, which lowers your blood pressure. Cardio also helps your heart pump more efficiently by training your body to respond to temporary stress. 

During exercise, your heart rate surges so that it can deliver more oxygen-rich blood to your fatigued muscles. Over time, this builds your stamina and endurance. It also lowers your resting heart rate. A low resting rate decreases your risk of heart disease! 

Examples of cardio-based training are walking, jogging, running, cycling, dancing, and swimming.

Aerobic exercise for the heart

Need something lighter? Ditch the elevator and opt for the stairs when possible. Try integrating consistent movement into your daily routine. No matter how small or insignificant you think they are, small chunks of exercise add up over time. 

Resistance Training

Resistance training, also known as strength training, effectively burns body fat, which induces weight loss. Maintaining a healthy physique is crucial to fighting heart disease. Obesity leads to high blood pressure, excess cholesterol, diabetes, and a dangerous buildup of fatty materials in your arteries. 

Arteries are blood vessels that transport blood to all of your vital organs. If your arteries become clogged or damaged, you’re at much greater risk of suffering a heart attack.

Strength training includes lifting weights, taking Pilates classes, or doing push-ups, planks, mountain climbers, squats, and lunges. Whether you’re grinding at the gym or sweating from the comfort of your own home, resistance exercises are a great way to improve your heart health.


While stretching isn’t directly responsible for strengthening your heart, it does enhance the quality of your cardio and strength workouts. By bolstering your flexibility and joint mobility, stretching lets you operate at peak performance. It also eases joint pain, muscle soreness, and occasional post-workout cramping. 

Always stretch before and after exercise to prevent injury. Not sure what or how to stretch? Give yoga a try! This beloved activity reduces blood pressure, relieves stress and anxiety, and boosts metabolism, amongst other benefits. If you’re seeking a low-impact option, yoga is your saving grace. 

Stretching exercise

Pro Tip: Professionals recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Break this number down into five 30-minute sessions. 

For the best results, do three days of aerobic exercise and two days of resistance training. During the remaining two days, go for a light jog on the treadmill or walk around your neighborhood to keep your heart active.

Consume a Heart-Healthy Diet

What you eat is just as important as how active you are. 

Your body is like a car: When you put cheap, low-quality gas into a vehicle, the motor may get damaged and won't run smoothly. The same goes for your body. Consuming unhealthy foods regularly wreaks havoc on your digestive system, brain, and — most significantly — your heart. 

Think about how many times you’ve heard phrases like, “food is fuel” and “you are what you eat." While this advice is often irritating to hear, the people sharing it are definitely on to something.

Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods are best for your heart. Leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and kale have large amounts of Vitamin K, which reduces blockage in your arteries. 

Fruits like blueberries, apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, and avocados are both delicious and doctor-approved. Minimal dairy is perfectly fine as long as you make the switch to low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter. 

To increase your body’s good cholesterol, consume lean proteins such as salmon, chicken, turkey, and 96 percent lean and 4 percent fat ground beef. 

Heart healthy foods

Eat complex carbs in moderation. Oatmeal, jasmine rice, brown rice, and whole-grain bread are great options. 

Taking care of your heart doesn’t mean completely giving up dessert. Dark chocolate, frozen yogurt, berries, and sweet potato dessert recipes are your new best friends!

Pro Tip: Cook the majority of your meals at home. This lets you control what goes into your body and minimizes the temptation to splurge or "cheat" at restaurants.

Restrict Unhealthy Foods

Refined carbohydrates, processed goods, red meats, sugars, trans and saturated fats, and sodium fall under the unhealthy foods category. They exacerbate inflammation in your body, which endangers the heart. 

Cutting them out entirely just doesn’t feel fair, achievable, or human. You’re not alone in that. Limit your intake as much as possible and find healthier alternatives to get yourself through the hard days. 

Always opt for complex carbs over simple carbs. Do your best to shop the outside parameters of the grocery store where there are more whole foods and fewer processed foods. To promote healthy eating, stick with lean meats, eat fruits instead of dessert, read nutrition labels before you buy a grocery item, and flavor your foods with herbs and spices instead of salt. 

Avoid pre-made pasta sauces and instant products by cooking your meals from scratch. Are you a novice in the cooking department? No worries! Start by looking up videos on YouTube. Gordon Ramsey, Joshua Weissman, and the Green Healthy Cooking channel are simple, educational, and encouraging.

Most importantly, recruit support from your friends and family to keep you accountable on your heart health journey.

Reduce and Manage Your Stress 

Stress is extremely harmful to your body. It raises your cortisol, spikes your blood pressure, lowers good cholesterol, impairs your sleep quality, and tempts you to make spontaneous, unhealthy lifestyle choices. 

From traumatic life events to minor everyday occurrences, stress offers an endless amount of triggers that can feel unavoidable. Perhaps you’re worried about finances, work, or school. Perhaps you have other health problems weighing on you. 

Maybe you’re struggling to forgive someone or hanging onto a relationship for dear life. Maybe you have way too much on your plate and can't figure out how to lighten your load. 

Add heart problems to that list and all you have is something else to stress over. 

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it should never feel overbearing or hopeless. If it does, your body is desperately signaling for relief.

Woman meditating

Prioritize your physical and mental health by taking vacation days, participating in a hobby you deeply enjoy, treating yourself to a cup of coffee, spending more quality time with loved ones, taking consistent breaks throughout your day, and sticking to a set sleep schedule.

Consider also meeting with a therapist or confiding in a trusted friend. Having a safe outlet is crucial because it keeps you from bottling up your anxiety and frustrations. You can only bury pent-up stress for so long. The longer it’s concealed, the more destruction it leaves behind — inside and out.

Quit Harmful Habits

It may be easier said than done to put down that cigarette or bottle, but several American habits wreak havoc on the body. While it may be tough to quit, it’s quite literally your life on the line. 

Smoking damages your arteries, which weakens your heart. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to elevated triglycerides and scary liver problems, which enlarge your heart.

Poor dental hygiene causes all sorts of inflammatory issues, while a sedentary lifestyle contributes to excessive weight gain, wearing out your arteries. 

Harmful habits like these dramatically increase your likelihood of a life-threatening heart attack. They're hard to break, but not impossible.

All you need is patience, grace, discipline, a healthy attitude, and a strong support system!

Get Adequate Sleep

While you catch those precious z’s, your heart rate, breathing levels, and blood pressure go down. Your body also repairs your heart along with other important systems. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body fails to fully recover from the day before. The effects of a poor night's sleep go way beyond just feeling cranky or tired.

You crave junk foods, you binge eat to compensate for your lack of energy, you suffer from poor decision-making abilities, and the list of symptoms goes on.

Down the line, constant sleep deprivation leads to other health issues that trigger heart disease and full-blown heart attacks.

Getting adequate sleep is severely underrated! You need it, especially when you’re dealing with heart problems.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Need tips for relaxation? Cut off your caffeine consumption by 2 p.m., avoid exercising 90 minutes before bedtime, and take a natural sleep aid one to two hours before you hit the sheets. 

Get restful sleep

Regularly Visit the Doctor

Going to the doctor may be nerve-wracking, but it’s necessary. Without regular checkups, underlying health conditions can fly under the radar and potentially become worse than if you caught them early on. 

When you visit a clinic, order a full blood panel that tests your cholesterol, blood pressure, hormone levels, glucose, blood cell count, and vital organ function. This gives a full picture of your health, including any heart-related conditions. 

Consistent visits also give you peace of mind!

Safety Tip: If you have a diagnosed heart condition, it’s important to visit your cardiologist every three months until your symptoms stabilize. 

Safety Tips for Your Heart Health Journey

Did you recently suffer from a heart attack or undergo heart surgery? Are you worried that your heart can’t handle exercise? 

While physical activity is strongly encouraged for people with heart problems, always talk to your healthcare provider before doing anything strenuous or risky.

If you experience extreme shortness of breath, nausea, numbness or tingling in your arms, dizziness, chest pain, fast or uneven heartbeat, or a burning pressure that radiates to your left arm, call your doctor immediately. 

Put Your Heart Into It

Certified cardiologist and professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Ben Levine comments, "A lifelong commitment to regular cardio exercise can preserve your heart’s function and keep it ‘youthful’ over the course of your life."

By exercising daily, consuming a heart-healthy diet, restricting unhealthy foods, reducing your stress, quitting harmful habits, getting adequate sleep, and visiting your doctor regularly, you stand to create a healthier, happier, and longer life.

Better yet? Your heart gets to do what it does best: beat, love, and relish in the beauty of living.

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