Heart-Healthy Exercise: Can you Exercise Safely with Heart Problems?

Sunal Makadia, MD, is a specialty care physician board-certified in cardiovascular disease and internal medicine with Inova Cardiology in Lutherville, Maryland. He has a special interest in sports cardiology.

Maybe you were a serious athlete before a heart attack or bypass surgery stopped you in your tracks. Maybe you’ve never been a sporty type, but are inspired to run a 5K — or even a 10K. Do heart problems mean your athletic dreams are out of the question?

Not at all. Physical activity is important for keeping your heart healthy. With the right precautions, you can even participate in vigorous exercise, despite heart problems.

Exercise Benefits

It’s clear that physical activity is good for everyone. Regular exercise lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Being active is also important for people who already have cardiovascular problems. In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers looked at the benefits of exercise in people with heart disease. They found the more exercise people got, the lower their risk of dying.

The benefits extend beyond your heart, too. Exercise lowers the risk of dementia and some cancers, promotes bone health, boosts mood and improves sleep.

Exercise Guidelines

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week. How much is “moderate”? Plan to get your heart rate up and breathe a bit harder than usual, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation. 

As you exercise, pay attention to your body. Signs you’re pushing too hard include:

  • Chest pain
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath

If you experience any of these symptoms, stop working out and contact your doctor.

Exercise and Heart Disease: Move Safely

If you have existing heart problems, it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Make sure to check in with a physician if you have:

  • A history of heart disease, congestive heart failure, bypass surgery or stents
  • Poorly controlled high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Diabetes
  • A family history of heart disease
  • Been told by your doctor you’re in a high-risk category for heart attack or stroke

Your primary care physician or a cardiologist can determine whether you’re healthy enough to start the activity you’re interested in. He or she should also be able to give you personalized recommendations about how to exercise safely, taking into account any medications (such as blood thinners) that you might be using.

Warning Signs

Once you get the green light, it’s important to start slow. If you haven’t been regularly physically active, don’t expect to run 5 miles right out of the gate. You might start with a brisk walk, eventually working your way up to a light jog.

With regular practice, you’ll soon be able to exercise harder and longer. But there’s no rush. You don’t have to run marathons to reap the benefits of exercise. Walking, biking, swimming, dancing–they’re all good for heart health.

Cardiac Rehabilitation

If you’ve been living with a heart problem, you might be anxious about pushing your heart too hard. That’s completely understandable, and very common. But it is possible to exercise safely. In fact, it’s one of the best things you can do for your health.

If you’re feeling worried or you aren’t sure where to start, cardiac rehabilitation is a great place to turn. Cardiac rehab offers medically supervised exercise and education for people with heart disease.

Ready to lace up your sneakers and get started? Talk to your doctor about how best to begin, or learn more about the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program. Your heart (and the rest of you) will be glad you did.

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