Pop quiz: Can you name the most important muscle in your body? Nope, it's not your abs, hamstrings or triceps. It's your heart!|
The human heart is an amazing muscle, capable of pumping about five quarts of blood throughout the body every minute—that's approximately 2,000 gallons of blood each day! In fact, the average heart beats about 100,000 times each day, too, which is why it's so important to have a strong and healthy heart.
And just like you can exercise to build strength in your skeletal muscles, you can—and should—also train your heart to become stronger, healthier and more efficient at doing its job. The right workout plan is like strength-training for your heart, which helps it pump more blood with less effort.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA) nearly 70% of Americans don't get enough exercise, yet inactivity is a major risk factor for developing coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is caused by deposits of fatty substances, cholesterol, calcium and other substances in the inner lining of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. This build-up makes the arteries narrowed or blocked, and when oxygen-rich blood can't reach the heart, the result is chest pain or a heart attack. Over time, CAD can weaken the heart muscle and lead to heart failure.
While CAD is the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, the good news is that lifestyle changes—like exercise!—can help prevent or treat CAD in most people.
How to Exercise for a Healthy Heart
Fortunately, it doesn't take hours in the gym to reap the heart-healthy benefits of exercise. As little as 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, most days of the week can substantially reduce your risk of heart disease, enhance your mental well-being, help you manage your weight, and improve your blood pressure and blood lipid (cholesterol) profiles.
While previous recommendations have focused mainly on cardio (aerobic) conditioning for heart health, new guidelines developed by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the AHA also take into account higher levels of intensity and the benefits that strength training offers your heart, too. These recommendations are for healthy adults under the age of 65 who want to improve heart health, prevent heart disease, and increase overall well-being.
Cardio (aerobic) exercise guidelines: Perform moderately-intense cardio exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If weight-loss is your goal as well, bump this number up to 60 to 90 minutes at a moderate intensity. Moderate intensity is defined by ACSM as a target heart rate range of 55%-59% of your maximum heart rate—about at the pace where you break a sweat but are still able to carry a conversation.
In order to make it easy to get your heart healthier, we've created sample workout plans for three different fitness levels. After 3-4 months at one level, jump up to the next level to continue challenging yourself and improving your fitness and cardiovascular fitness. Before you start, read these safety guidelines and get clearance to exercise from your doctor.
Heart-Healthy Workout Plan for Beginners
Cardio: Choose two cardio activities that you love to do, such as dancing, basketball, swimming, biking or walking. Alternate those activities five times a week for 30 minutes per session (moderate intensity). The most important thing is to pick something you like to do so that exercise is enjoyable.
Strength: Use SparkPeople's Workout Generator and choose beginner, full-body workout that takes about 30 minutes to complete. Follow the plan two days per week, with a least one day of rest between strength-training sessions.
Putting it All Together: How do you put 5 days of cardio and 2 days of strength training together into one easy plan? Here's an example of how your workout plan may look.
Monday: Brisk walk for 30 minutes (moderate cardio session #1)Heart-Smart Workout Plan for Intermediate Exercisers
If you've been working out regularly for at least 6 months (at least 30 minutes a session most days of the week), you can begin to include some higher-intensity workouts to better your heart health. As a bonus, the harder you work out, the less time you'll need to spend exercising to achieving the same heart-healthy benefits.
Cardio Plan: Instead of doing five moderate-intensity sessions a week, aim for three 30- to 45-minute of workouts at a moderate-intensity, and one 20-minute workout at a high-intensity.
Strength Plan: Use SparkPeople's Workout Generator and choose a shorter, more advanced strength-training workout to follow two days per week.
Putting it All Together: How do you put 4 days of cardio and 2 days of strength training together into one easy plan? Here's an example of how your workout plan may look.
Monday: Walk for 45 minutes (moderate cardio session #1)Heart-Boosting Workout Plan for Advanced Exercisers
For people who have been working out for more than a year and are comfortable doing high-intensity workouts, this is your plan.
Cardio Plan: Do two to three 20- to 30-minute high-intensity aerobic workouts, plus two moderate-intensity workouts of at least 30 minutes.
Strength Plan: Do two to three strength training sessions of 30 minutes or more, incorporating more advanced moves and/or heavier weights.
Putting it All Together: Here's an example of how your workout plan may look.
Monday: 30+ minutes of running intervals: Run fast or sprint for 2 minutes, then jog slowly for 1 minute, repeat (high intensity cardio session #1)
No matter how much you work out now, you can improve your heart health with a combination of cardio and strength exercises. The important thing is to just get moving!
This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople fitness experts and certified personal trainers, Jen Mueller and Nicole Nichols.
American College of Sports Medicine. "Physical Activity and Public Health Guidelines," accessed March 2011. www.acsm.org.
American Heart Association. "Physical Activity: AHA Scientific Position," accessed March 2011. www.americanheart.org.
Cleveland Clinic. "Your Heart and Blood Vessels," accessed March 2011. www.my.clevelandclinic.org.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. "What Is Coronary Artery Disease?," accessed March 2011. www.nhlbi.nih.gov.