Heart health and physical activity

Physical activity and your heart

Key points about physical activity and your heart

  • Physical activity is any movement you do – from cleaning, to jogging, using the stairs or working in the garden.   
  • The more you move, the better it is for your heart. 
  • Just 30 minutes or more of moderate physical activity on most days of the week will improve your heart health.
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Physical activity has many heart health benefits. These include:

  • Reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, eg, heart attack and stroke – by lowering your blood pressure and triglycerides (a kind of fat in your bloodstream).
  • Improving your cholesterol.
  • Helping with weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight, along with a healthy diet. Being overweight puts extra stress on your heart.
  • Controlling your blood glucose level – exercise can stop or slow the development of diabetes.
  • Possibly helping you to stop smoking –  fit people are less likely to smoke and smoking is a major risk for cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes. 
  • Helping you sleep better and feel less stressed.
  • Building muscles – stronger muscles are better at getting oxygen from your bloodstream meaning your heart doesn't have to work so hard. 
  • Reduces levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) – a sign of inflammation which is an increased risk for heart disease.

There are 3 different levels of physical activity – light, moderate and vigorous. Light keeps you moving gently, moderate improves your overall health and vigorous challenges your body, improving your fitness. Together, they create a balanced approach to staying active.

Light activity

This is any kind of movement that doesn’t change your breathing. It includes everyday activities like taking a leisurely walk or cooking dinner. You’ll be able to do these activities for a long time without tiring.

Moderate activity

You may have been told you should be doing moderate activity, but what exactly is it? Moderate physical activity is exercise that makes your heart beat faster and causes you to breathe a bit harder. A simple way to check if you’re doing it right is by using the ‘talk test’: 

  • When you're exercising, you should notice you're breathing harder, but you should still be able to chat with someone. This is where you want to be.
  • If you can sing a song while you're exercising then you’re not working hard enough. Step it up and try to make your exercise a little more challenging.
  • If you're so out of breath you can't chat while exercising it means you're overdoing it, so slow it down.  

Vigorous activity

Vigorous physical activity is when you’re really putting in effort, and it makes you breathe hard and fast. You’ll know you’re doing it when your heart rate is up, you’re sweating and find yourself unable to say more than a few words without stopping for breath. Your muscles will get tired more quickly and you'll find you can't do this type of exercise for long periods of time. 

Examples of light, moderate and vigorous activities

Light physical activity Moderate physical activity Vigorous physical activity
Slow walking, hanging out the washing, vacuuming Brisk walking or hiking High intensity interval training (HIIT)
Indoor bowls Lawn bowls Running or skipping
A stretch session Gentle water aerobics Playing sports, eg, netball, soccer and rugby
Horse riding – walking pace Low impact aerobics Swimming laps
Slow stationary cycling Moderate cycling Cycling fast or up hills
Fishing Playing cricket or golf Playing touch rugby/rugby
Watering the garden  Mowing the lawn or gardening  Climbing flights of stairs

Aerobic activity is the best type of activity to help improve your heart health. This activity uses the large muscles in your arms and legs, eg, walking, jogging or cycling. Build up your activity levels carefully and if you have any problems (eg, chest pain, dizziness) when you're exercising, talk to your healthcare provider. 

Note: If you have a history of cardiovascular disease you should talk to your healthcare provider before starting any vigorous physical activity. 

If you find it hard to get more active, find out some ideas for how to fit more activity into your day.  

Apart from physical activity, there are many different factors that shape your risk of heart disease. Some of these you can't change (eg, your age, sex and ethnicity). However there are other factors you can change, eg whether you smoke and what you eat and drink.

Click on the risk factors below to find out more.   


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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

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