5 Steps to Heart Health Through Exercise

By: Michelle Kim

Exercise is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease.  See more heart health pictures.
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Realistically, most of us aren't going to be Olympic athletes, but that doesn't mean you can't benefit hugely from exercise. For cardiac health, exercise is one of the cheapest and most effective heart disease prevention and treatment methods available. Regular exercise can help lower blood pressure, control triglyceride and LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels, prevent diabetes, and help you quit smoking and overeating.

And just a little bit goes a long way -- even 30 minutes three times a week of moderate activity (such as walking) has been shown to lower mortality rates.


But most of us already know exercise is good for us. It's actually doing it that's the hard part. The reasons behind not exercising range from thinking it's too hard to being tired to the biggest culprit of all -- not enough time. (We contend that if you have time to browse the Internet, you probably have time to exercise.)

In the next few pages, we'll go over simple ways of getting around some of these obstacles and how to set up a plan that'll work for your lifestyle.

5: Zero in on Your Target

Whenever you start a new course of exercise, it's important to evaluate your health. If you have heart problems or take certain prescription drugs (such as beta blockers, for example), a talk with a doctor is a good idea before you begin. And don't think a faulty heart will keep you out of the game -- there is such a thing as cardiac rehabilitation to get you stronger.

Now that you've gotten that out of the way, you need a goal more specific than "exercise more." (We all know how that New Year's resolution usually turns out.) To improve your heart and lung health, you'll want to raise your heart rate to what's called your target heart rate during the exercise period (see sidebar).


On to a plan of exercise:

  • For healthy adults under the age of 65, the American Heart Association and American College of Sports Medicine recommend moderately intense cardio exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Moderately intense means breaking a sweat but being able to carry on a conversation.
  • Another option is vigorously intense cardio exercise 20 minutes a day, three days a week. Add to this eight to 10 strength-training exercises twice a week, with eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise.

Start with the lower end of your target heart rate, and as you improve, increase your intensity to bring your heart rate to the higher end of your target.

4: Make a Realistic Plan

Pick an activity that you can stick with.
Pick an activity that you can stick with.

Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day. Break your overall goal down into smaller steps.

Make a four- to eight-week plan and chart your progress by recording when you worked out, how far and how long, and what your standing heart rate is.


Some more tips:

  • Pick an activity you know you can stick with. If you hate running, for example, there's a good chance you'll quit doing it.
  • If you can't start with 30 minutes of activity at a time, start with something you know you can do, such as 10 minutes, and add a minute more each time.
  • Make sure to stretch and warm up for 5 minutes before any extended or strenuous activity.
  • If you have physical limitations, pick an activity that accommodates them. For instance, swimming or water aerobics might be a good choice for someone with bad knees.
  • A rule of thumb to avoid overexertion: You should still be able to talk while you're exercising. But if you can sing while working out, you're probably not working hard enough.

3: Do It Regularly

They say it takes 21 times of doing something before it becomes a habit. Whatever you decide to do, the key is to make the commitment and do it consistently.

To start, find a time that best fits your schedule -- the time you're most likely to work out and when your energy level is highest. If you're a morning person, work out before your workday starts. For night owls, exercise can be a way to unwind in the evening.


Picking the right environment is another way to make sure you stay on course. Do you get energy from being around a lot of people? Join a workout class, group or a team sport. If you prefer to work out alone, find a quiet, safe place to do so. If the weather outside is going to stop you from exercising, have a backup plan and place to do your activity, such as walking in the mall instead of the park. A workout buddy or group is also a good idea, so there's someone to hold you accountable.

2: Have Fun

Join a group sport or activity if you like being social.
Join a group sport or activity if you like being social.
Kane Skennar/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Exercise doesn't just mean jogging or swimming or staying in the gym. Pick activities that you enjoy. Activities such as bowling, golf, dancing, gardening, in-line skating, rowing, racquetball, swimming, tennis, volleyball and hiking all count as exercise -- just to name a few. Keep things interesting by changing up your routine occasionally or trying a different activity.

You can use the activity as an opportunity to try something new, or to meet new people. It can also be a chance to spend time with friends or family members. Why not take a hike together instead of going to lunch (or even after your lunch)?


And take a tip from kindergarten teachers and their gold stars -- chart your progress each week, and as you achieve each step, reward yourself with a treat.

1: Get It Where You Can

Even if you can't maintain a workout routine, or you just want to enhance your workout, here are some simple things you can do in your daily routine:

  • Park farther away in a parking lot and walk a few steps more to the entrance.
  • If you have time, walk the long way around something, instead of taking the shortest path.
  • Take a walk after dinner instead of sitting down right away.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator when you can.
  • Do a couple of crunches or pushups during commercials while watching TV.
  • Go through housework briskly to raise your heart rate.
  • Instead of sitting at a bench at the playground or in the car during sports practice waiting for your child, walk around the field, parking lot or courts.
  • Do simple exercises while sitting down at a desk or traveling, such as knee lifts, shoulder rolls or arm lifts.

You don't have to become a world-class athlete to see improvements in your physical health. But you do have to do something, do it more often, and do it consistently.


Step by Step

An easy way to incorporate more activity into your daily life is to find ways to take more steps. The average adult takes about 6,000 steps a day, according to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The recommendation of about 30 minutes of activity a day works out to around 10,000 steps a day, while it takes about 12,000 to 15,000 steps a day to see weight loss.

To measure how many steps you take, invest in a pedometer (they range from about $5 to $40 in price, but even the most basic pedometers should do the trick). Keep a step diary of how many steps the pedometer measures each day, and see if you can find ways to increase that number by 20 percent until you reach the recommended 10,000 steps.