You don’t have to run a marathon to keep your heart healthy. In fact, you don’t have to run at all. A brisk walk can get the job done.
“Believe it or not, moderate intensity exercise does just as much to promote cardiovascular fitness as the high intensity stuff,” says James Kinn, MD, a cardiologist with Northwestern Medicine in Illinois.
“For [people] 70 and older, it might even be better because you’re less likely to get a workout or overuse injury.”
Exercise sets off a number of processes that are good for your body. But Kinn says you don’t need to understand all that. Just know that physical activity can do lots of healthy stuff for your heart and blood vessels.
Moderate intensity exercises like walking can lower your:
- Chances of stroke
- Blood pressure
- Chances of type 2 diabetes
- LDL “bad” cholesterol
- Weight and excess body fat
They can also help control your blood sugar and raise your HDL “good” cholesterol.
That’s not all. Exercise that becomes part of your routine can:
- Help you think better
- Improve your sleep
- Help control your blood sugar
- Boost your mood
- Help you lose weight
- Slow the aging process
- Boost your immune system
It’ll also protect your bones. “And osteoporosis is a major problem in this country, especially for women,” Kinn says.
What Is a Heart-Healthy Workout?
Kinn says you should aim for 30-60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, 5 days a week. Don’t worry if you need to start on the low end and work your way up.
“It’s better to do 10 minutes of exercise than nothing,” Kinn says. “It’s also OK to break it up throughout the day. If you can’t walk for 30 minutes, do two walks for 15 minutes.”
Keep in mind that exercise for cardiovascular fitness isn’t the same as training to win a race. You don’t need to go all out to see benefits.
You can check your pulse manually or use your effort as a gauge. For moderate-intensity exercise, Kinn says you want to breathe faster, but you should still be able to complete a sentence. But it’s probably simpler to use a heart rate monitor. Lots of common activity trackers and smartwatches can measure your heart.
“They’re so easy to get,” Kinn says. “And you can just wear them on your wrist.”
Which Activity Is Best?
Your heart doesn’t have a favorite exercise. It just likes it when you get moving. What’s most important is that you find something you like and will want to do often.
Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Fast walking or jogging
- Water aerobics
- Ballroom dancing
- Slow biking (10-12 mph)
If you opt for walking, don’t give up if you can’t go really far or fast. Instead, focus on how long you’re active.
“Get your minutes in,” Kinn says. “And in time, your distance and speed will improve.”
Aging causes a natural decline in muscle mass. Doctors call it sarcopenia, and it happens to all of us. But you can get some of your strength back.
You should challenge your muscles a couple times a week. You can use your own body for things like squats or pushups. Or, grab some dumbbells. But if you use extra weights, don’t strain to pick them up. Kinn says that can cause a sudden spike in blood pressure. And that can be hard on the blood vessels of older adults.
“If you can’t lift it 20 times, it’s probably too heavy,” Kinn says.
Make sure to work out all of your major muscle groups each week. That includes your:
Need extra motivation? Studies show aerobic activity paired with resistance training could help your heart and blood vessels more than either activity alone. If you’re not sure where to start, a personal trainer or physical therapist can help. Find one who specializes in older adults.
Work on Your Balance
It’s common to feel a little less steady as you get older. But your balance problems may go way up once you hit 80 or 90. That can raise the odds you’ll fall and hurt yourself.
Exercise can help with your stability. And there isn’t just one way to do it.
“Anything you can do to improve stretching, balance, and core strength is going to help,” Kinn says.
Some activities that can help balance include:
- Tai Chi
- Strength training in your legs
You should try some balance training a few days a week. But you can do it every day if you want.
“Try to stand on one foot a couple times a day,” Kinn says. “Maybe while you’re standing in the kitchen, waiting for a pot to boil. You can hang on to a counter nearby and practice your balance.”
And don’t forget to stretch. Your muscles, limbs, and tissue around your joints tighten with age. This stiffness can affect your balance and make it hard to move around. So Kinn says it’s important to work on flexibility in large muscle groups like your legs, lower back, and hip flexors.
Talk to your doctor if you often feel unsteady or dizzy. Your medicine or a hidden health condition might be to blame.
Physical Activity After a Heart Attack
Everyone can benefit from exercise. And research shows people who stayed active the first year after a heart attack fared better than those who didn’t.
But if you’ve recently had a heart attack, you should talk to your doctor about what level of fitness is OK for you. You’ll likely need special help from a cardiac rehab program, Kinn says. That’s when you work with a therapist who can monitor your heart while you exercise.
“We can see that the heart rate and rhythm is safe as they get back into their exercise program,” he says. “And this can help build confidence … so they can go for that brisk walk with their spouse.”
When to Get Started
You should talk to your doctor first if you’ve had a recent heart attack or if you have three or more cardiovascular risk factors. That’s things like:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- A history of smoking
But for most people, there’s no reason to wait, Kinn says.
“Get out there and get going today.”