Valentine’s Day is on its way, and while honoring our significant other is a worthy occasion, there is more than one important holiday to observe in the month of February. The second month of the year has been christened American Heart Month, a perfect match for the holiday of love on the 14th. And with cardiovascular disease (CVD) as the leading cause of death in the United States, there is more reason than ever to celebrate heart health and wellness.(1)
The good news is you can implement various heart-healthy lifestyle modifications to boost the longevity of one of your most important organs! As no surprise, exercise is one of the primary practices that can significantly alter and improve overall heart health, with a mixture of cardiovascular training, resistance training, and mobility training making the biggest impact.(2) Let’s talk about some helpful tips and tricks on how to make your heart-healthy exercise program perfect for you.
Why is Exercise so Important for Better Heart Health?
Just like lifting weights makes your muscles bigger and stronger, exercise that works your heart makes your heart stronger and more efficient. With exercise conditioning, you can expect to experience various cardiac adaptations including improved heart function, decreased resting heart rate and blood pressure, and increase cardiac output (the amount of blood ejected with each beat). From a whole-body standpoint, exercise helps to reduce blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels and improves your muscle’s ability to use circulating oxygen.(3) All of these benefits are considered to be cardioprotective, and help prevent and/or reduce the occurrence of CVD, so you can understand why exercising for heart health is a crucial part of your workout split.
What types of exercise should you be including in this heart healthy exercise plan? Most people think of aerobic or cardiovascular exercise being the most valuable, and this type of training certainly has its merit. However, research shows a workout plan with a mix of cardiovascular, resistance, and mobility training provides the greatest benefit.(2) Here are some recommendations for implementing all 3 types of exercise into your weekly routine.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio per week. Scientists have also observed a positive dose response when it comes to cardiovascular training, meaning the more minutes you add to that 150, the better.(2)
Tips & Tricks
- “Exercise snacking:” If you don’t have an extended chunk of time in your day to dedicate to a long workout, you can split up your cardio into bitesize “snacks” throughout the day. A recent study found that walking just one minute for every hour of sitting was enough to significantly lower blood pressure.(4) Ideally, you will be able to fit in at least 10-minute bouts (as research shows this to be more advantageous) but if not, you will still reap the benefits from several shorter duration workouts done throughout your day.(2) There really is no limitation to what you can do here, so set your weekly goal and break it up to fit in to your own schedule.
- Find something you like to do: If you are forcing yourself out the door for a bike ride every morning, when you loathe biking, this will probably not be sustainable long term. Pick an activity that is enjoyable for you and will be more motivated to stick with.
- Take your work calls from the treadmill (or bike): If you work from home and can take calls while on the go, try it! If you have equipment at home, like a bike or a treadmill, find a workload that doesn’t make you too breathless, but gets your legs moving. Multitasking at its finest!
- Netflix & sweat: Alternatively, try merging your TV time with your cardio time. Put on a 30-minute show, start up your treadmill, and by the time the show is over you will have hit your 30-minute exercise goal for the day.
Unhealthy body weight/composition is one primary risk factor for CVD, with high levels of visceral fat being the most dangerous. Resistance training works on increasing lean muscle mass and improving overall body composition, which helps minimize the effects of this risk factor on heart health. Additionally, with a larger mass of active tissue (your muscles), your body will be able to use more blood glucose for energy. This lessens the amount of blood glucose circulating throughout your body and provides a cardioprotective effect.(5) The AHA recommends at least two nonconsecutive days of resistance training per week. These workouts should be a moderate to vigorous intensity and target all major muscle groups.(2)
Tips & Tricks
- Use a fitness app: Take the guesswork out of resistance training and follow along with pre-made, professional trainer-led workouts. You can do these workouts right from home and make exercise even more convenient! Find your next workout on the SunnyFit® app here.
- Try supersets or circuit training: The idea here is to target two (or more) different muscle groups back-to-back without any rest. This allows one muscle group to work while the others rest but keeps your body moving the entire time. Not only does this save you time by reducing the amount of rest in between exercises, but it also challenges your body for a more efficient and effective workout.
- Superset example:
- Bodyweight squat—15 reps
- Overhead Shoulder Press—15 reps
- Complete all reps with no rest between exercises. After completing both exercises, rest for one minute. Repeat for 3 sets.
- Pick compound exercises: A compound exercise is any movement that works more than one muscle group at a time. Think squats, deadlifts, rows, or pushups; these exercises require you to engage several muscle groups at once, and you won’t have to spend as much time doing various isolation exercises to hit all the same muscle groups.
- Dial in your routine: Prepare yourself the day, or even week before, so you have a game plan for the next day’s or week’s workouts. Know what you’re doing beforehand and have everything ready to go (i.e., decide on your workout, get your exercise clothes set out, get equipment set up, etc.) so all you must do is dive in.
Incorporating some sort of mobility and/or flexibility training into your weekly exercise routine is important for being able to move comfortably and efficiently throughout your day.(6) Beyond that, researchers have found that stretching five times per week reduces blood pressure and artery stiffness and improved overall blood flow. This keeps artery walls healthy and lowers likelihood of heart attack or stroke occurring later in life.(7) From a stress relief standpoint, mobility-centric workouts such as yoga and stretching, activate your peripheral nervous system and help manage your stress response.(8) Stress is a notorious risk factor for CV disease, so being able to cope with daily stress is an important skill to have.
Tips & Tricks
- Relax and release: When stretching, your brain and nervous system automatically sends a protective response to contract said muscle when it thinks you are overstretching. Unfortunately, this prohibits your flexibility from progressing, so try your best to actively relax your muscles through each stretch. And, of course, make sure you are stretching to a safe range of motion. If you are feeling any sharp pain or intense pulling, back off on the stretch.
- Don’t forget to breathe: When experiencing physical discomfort, there is a natural tendency to want to hold your breath. It is important to breathe evenly and calmly through each stretch, as holding your breath can skyrocket you blood pressure. Focusing on your breath is also a great way to center yourself and take your mind off any discomfort or stress.
- Practice yoga: If you’re looking for a workout that does it all, look no further. Cultivating a regular yoga practice is great for your strength, aerobic capacity, mobility, flexibility, and heart health! There have been several scientific studies supporting a link between lowered blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Additionally, yoga taps into stress management by using breathwork and meditation to help regulate your nervous system.(8)
- Warm it up: Before stretching, it is imperative to make sure your muscles are warm and prepped to get bendy. Not only does this prevent muscle injury or strain, but it also allows you to move into a deeper stretch. Do your workout or go for a brisk walk prior to your stretch session to ensure your body is ready for it!
A Well-Rounded Heart
As research demonstrates, heart health is more than just cardio. Celebrate your heart this month (and every month) by walking, lifting, stretching, and breathing. While each of these workouts provide excellent heart-healthy benefits, your heart will thank you for a routine that focuses on all three types of exercise.
1. Heart disease facts, CDC, 2022. Heart Disease Facts | cdc.gov Accessed 20 January 2023.
2. American heart association recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids, American Heart Association, 2018. American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids | American Heart Association Accessed 16 January 2023.
3. Cardiovascular effects and benefits of exercise, Frontiers in cardiovascular medicine, 2018. Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise - PMC (nih.gov) Accessed 18 January 2023.
4. Sitting too much is bad for your health, but offsetting the impact is easy, study shows, CNN health, 2023. Sitting too much is bad for your health, but offsetting the impact is easy, study shows | CNN Accessed 18 January 2023.
5. Cardio isn’t enough. For a healthy heart, add resistance training, The Washington Post, 2020. Why strength training is good for your heart - The Washington Post Accessed 18 January 2023.
6. Flexibility exercise (stretching), American Heart Association, 2018. Flexibility Exercise (Stretching) | American Heart Association Accessed 18 January 2023.
7. A new way to help your heart: stretch! Cleveland Heart Lab, 2020. A New Way to Help Your Heart: Stretch! - Cleveland HeartLab, Inc. Accessed 23 January 2023.
8. A cardiologist explains how yoga can benefit heart health, Well + Good, 2022. A Cardiologist Explains How Yoga Can Benefit Heart Health | Well+Good (wellandgood.com) Accessed 23 January 2023.