A healthy cardiovascular system is high on the list of benefits that come from an active lifestyle. You’re not just strengthening your heart, you’re also supporting a healthy blood and oxygen flow, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels down, reducing insulin resistance and strengthening the immune system ― all of which are vital to increasing longevity.
The American Heart Association’s minimum recommendation for adults is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. It also recommends at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activity (resistance-building or weight-lifting exercises).
To achieve this weekly goal, you don’t necessarily have to participate in what we think of as standard “cardio” fitness, like running, swimming or cycling. Those are certainly wonderful options, but there are several effective ways to get your heart rate up for the recommended amount of time ― some of which you might not even think of as exercise.
“Basically, what research has shown is any activity that can increase the heart rate to be in that kind of moderate intensity zone is going to be considered enough aerobic activity to help be protective of the heart,” said Jennifer Soo Hoo, an assistant professor of clinical rehabilitation medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Here’s what heart health experts recommend:
Walking at a pace of 3 to 4 miles per hour should be brisk enough to target the moderate-intensity cardiovascular zone for the average adult, according to Soo Hoo.
Walking is also pretty accessible and low impact, meaning it’s easy on your joints and your likelihood of injury is fairly minimal compared with jogging or other high-intensity exercises. And you’re still reaping many of the same health benefits.
With brisk walking ― and any activity on this list ― there are a few ways to measure whether you’re amply exerting yourself to achieve a cardiovascular benefit. The easiest way is using a wearable device. If you have a product such as an Apple Watch or a FitBit, it will record your pulse and tell you how long your heart rate was in that moderate-intensity zone.
You can also take your pulse yourself by placing your index and middle fingers on either the inside of your wrist, your carotid artery (which is next to your windpipe) or the top of your foot. Count for 15 seconds and multiply the number of beats you get by four.
You want to reach 50% to 70% or 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate for moderate or vigorous intensity, respectively. You can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 (so, for a 35-year-old, 220-35=185 beats per minute). Here’s a helpful chart if math’s not your thing.
Finally, you can self-measure based on your perceived exertion. Ask yourself, “Does it seem somewhat hard? Did my breathing quicken?” If you can carry on a conversation but you can’t sing ― so you basically need a breath every five to six words ― that’s moderate intensity. Vigorous activities are where you’re out of breath and can’t say more than a few words, Soo Hoo explained.
Now that we’ve established the goal of reaching a target heart rate for a certain duration of time a week, think of all the ways you exert yourself that wouldn’t be considered fodder for PE class.
Household chores, like mowing the lawn, detailing your car, gardening, shoveling snow off your sidewalk, vigorously scrubbing the bathtub or mopping the floor, all count if executed at a high intensity. Bonus: You’re killing two birds with one stone.
When moving your body serves a practical function, like getting from point A to point B, it doesn’t feel like exercise — and yet it can be.
The next time you need to leave the house for a particular destination, you can choose to walk or bike there instead of driving or taking the bus. Ditto with taking the stairs versus the elevator. Build in activity throughout your day and it will all add up.
Don’t Forget Strength-Building Exercises
The AHA’s recommended two days a week of strength-building activity has an “indirect effect” on building heart health by keeping your musculoskeletal system fit.
“In order to be able to do the aerobic activities for long periods of time, you need to be able to increase your strength and flexibility,” Soo Hoo said. The two go hand in hand.
Moreover, “the impact that [strength training] has on increasing muscle mass and bone density can increase our metabolic rate and help us keep at a healthy body weight,” according to Sean Heffron, preventive cardiologist at the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone.
You can achieve this through yoga or pilates, which builds core strength and flexibility. You can also sprinkle in some resistance training through lifting weights or using bands. Some of these activities might even double as aerobic, if you do them quickly enough to increase your heart rate.
Fun, Leisure Activities
Exercise doesn’t have to follow a strict regimen; moving your body should not feel like punishment.
Dancing around to a playlist of your favorite jams, hula-hooping, playing a game of pickup basketball or playing fetch with the dog can also count (in addition to being great ways to blow off steam). Be creative and enjoy yourself and you’ll be more motivated to do it regularly.
You can break down the 150/75 minutes per week guidelines any way you want. It doesn’t have to be “three 25-minute runs a week” or “30 minutes of biking five days a week.”
The concept of an “exercise snack,” or a short bout of activity, can be an effective way to sneak in fitness throughout the day and week as long as you keep track of the time. For example, you could take a break and jump rope for 10 minutes, or take a 15-minute HIIT class or do a seven-minute workout.
Eating Well And Keeping Stress Levels In Check
Finally, don’t underestimate your other lifestyle habits. It’s not just staying active: Eating well and managing stress greatly contributes to cardiovascular health.
Heffron recommended following a food approach similar to the Mediterranean diet, a whole food plant-based diet or the DASH diet (which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension).
“All those diets have in common that they all incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables, high-fiber foods, some degree of fish consumption, very little processed food and red meat intake,” Heffron explained. It’s also recommended that you limit alcohol consumption.
Feeling stressed out or often angry, or abusing amphetamines or nicotine, can cause your blood pressure to spike and put undue strain on your heart and circulatory system. Developing healthy coping techniques ― like deep breathing, or talking to a friend or therapist ― can help keep your resting heart rate low.
Heffron described a healthy heart as one that’s “not working too hard. It can be called upon and respond when you need it to, but one that’s in such good shape that most of the time, it sits around bored just pumping its blood.”