Skip to main content

Why is physical activity so important in preventing heart disease?

Medically reviewed by Carmen Pope, BPharm. Last updated on Dec 12, 2021.

Official answer


Physical activity prevents heart disease by helping you maintain a healthy weight and keeping your joints mobile to allow you to do daily activities such as climbing stairs and shopping. This keeps your heart pumping and blood and oxygen flowing around your body.

Physical activity has also been shown to lower stress hormones and reduce your risk of depression or cognitive decline (this is how you think or learn, and your judgment skills). When you feel good about yourself and the world you live in, then you are more inclined to be active and to take good care of yourself, which helps your heart as well. It also boosts your immune system, causing changes in antibodies and white blood cells which are the body’s immune cells that fight disease. This can lower your risk of catching infections, such as the cold or the flu, or help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways.

Research has shown that physical activity can improve how well your heart pumps blood (this is called your ejection fraction) if it is done 3 to 5 times per week for at least 20 to 40 minutes per session at a moderate-intensity pace, but it must be built up gradually. With time, exercise can also help improve the strength and efficiency of the rest of your body, reduce hospitalizations, help maintain weight, and boost your quality of life.

There was a significant improvement in LVEF (from 46.9% to 61.5%) in coronary artery disease patients who completed 12 weeks of structured exercise training within 1 month of discharge. The exercise program consisted of 5–10 min warm-up (breathing exercise, stretching exercise, and walking on a treadmill) followed by graded aerobic training and 5–10 min cool down. Graded aerobic training was mainly treadmill walk three to five times per week, with an intensity of 40–70% for 20–40 min.

What can physical activity do for heart disease?

People with heart disease should exercise, and a good exercise program can:

  • Strengthen the heart
  • Improve circulation, which helps the body better use oxygen
  • Reduce heart failure symptoms such as shortness of breath and fatigue
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve cholesterol levels.

What type of physical activity is recommended to improve heart disease?

Exercise is recommended for people with heart disease, but it is important to slowly ease into it, particularly if you have recently been in hospital for a heart-related condition.

Do not jump into high-intensity physical activity routines immediately or over-exert yourself. Some symptoms of heart disease, such as swelling in the legs, shortness of breath, wheezing, or fatigue may make exercising challenging initially but being stationary or inactive will just make the symptoms worse.

Start slowly with some of the following activities:

  • Light stretching or light yoga
  • Walking on a flat surface or around your home
  • Walking a dog around your block
  • Pilates or a gentle exercise class at the gym
  • Swimming or water walking
  • Gentle biking on a flat road.

Pick something you enjoy and build up your routine gradually. Even two extra steps per day is progress because slow and steady wins the race when it comes to exercise and heart disease. Always discuss your physical activity plans with your doctor before starting because, as with any major change, there are risks that should only be assessed by an expert familiar with your circumstances. Your doctor may be also able to point you in the direction of a good cardiac rehabilitation program and give you pointers about exercises to try and which to avoid. The good news is that cardiac rehabilitation is usually covered by health insurance plans for many patients who suffer from heart disease.

When should I stop exercising if I have heart disease?

Warning signs to take heed of while you are exercising include:

  • Extreme shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, or light-headedness while exercising
  • Irregular or very fast heartbeat
  • Feeling pressure or pain in the chest, arms, neck, jaw, or shoulders

If these symptoms happen, slow down, stop, and call for medical attention if they don’t go away.

  • Strategies to prevent heart disease. Mayo Clinic 2021.
  • Physical Activity and Your Heart. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.,for%20people%20who%20have%20CHD.

Related medical questions

Related support groups