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If You Have Heart Disease, How Much Should You Exercise?

Elizabeth Millard
·3 mins read
Photo credit: thianchai sitthikongsak - Getty Images
Photo credit: thianchai sitthikongsak - Getty Images

From Bicycling

  • According to new guidelines from a task force with the European Society of Cardiology, people who have heart disease can benefit from regular exercise.

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly can help those with (or without!) heart disease.

  • For those with high blood pressure, or who deal with obesity, strength-building exercises at least three times per week are recommended.

Dramatic stories about heart attacks in the midst of races and rides might make it seem like exercise can be hard on the ticker for those who have heart conditions. But a new set of recommendations actually may suggest the opposite is true.

Published in European Heart Journal, the guidelines come out of a task force from the European Society of Cardiology, and note that people with heart disease, like those without, can benefit from regular exercise. At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as cycling, spread out over five to seven days, is recommended.

For those with high blood pressure, or who deal with obesity, the guidelines also recommend strength-building exercises, such as strength training, at least three times per week.

The biggest danger to your health is not exercising at all. That can not only worsen heart disease, but also increase the likelihood of developing the condition, according to task force chairperson Sanjay Sharma, M.D., professor of sports and cardiology at St. George’s, University of London.

“We’re living in an era where there is an increasing trend towards a sedentary lifestyle and an emerging epidemic of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus,” he told Runner’s World. “Exercise protects from all these factors and reduces the risk of having a heart attack by 50 percent in the 60s and 70s, so exercise is essential.”

Moderate-intensity exercise, such as cycling, is especially protective in those with established cardiovascular risk factors, he added.

Sharma said it’s possible but rare that exercise may trigger a heart attack in an individual with underlying cardiovascular disease, so that should be considered when transitioning from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one.

Risk can be assessed through simple measures including cardiac symptoms or risk factors, such as age, systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, and smoking status, he said. If these are a concern, it’s especially important to progress very gradually rather than launching into highly intensive exercise.

For some conditions, such as very high blood pressure, Sharma said power lifting should be avoided until blood pressure is controlled. Other conditions that may limit intensity are cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart which makes it harder for the heart muscle to pump blood to the rest of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic) and heart failure, he added. For some people, a degree of cardiac rehab might be recommended before doing moderate-intensity activity on their own.

In general, Sharma said the aim of the guidelines is to encourage and promote safe exercise for all individuals, whether you have a heart condition or not. Talking with your doctor is the first step in assessing risk, and then you can put together a tailored exercise plan.

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