Healthy Heart Exercise

Our heart is a muscle and needs regular exercise to be healthy.

In 2018 there were approximately 500,000 open heart surgeries performed in the US. (Chu, 2018) Coronary heart disease is actually the leading cause of death for both men and women, and yet research has shown that only 56% of women understand this. ( Although healthy diet and management of stress are very important, regular exercise for our heart muscle is often undervalued and overlooked.

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2 types of heart exercise that are beneficial. 

Many people are familiar with the importance of performing balance exercise as we age. Fall prevention is well documented and discussed in healthy aging. It is also common to hear recommendations on eating a heart healthy diet. However, I have noticed 2 lacking areas over the years with my senior clients: many seniors I have worked with have not had a regular cardiovascular exercise routine, and most did not practice relaxation exercises such as deep breathing. Comparable to “stretching and weightlifting”, cardiovascular exercise and deep breathing may go hand in hand to keep your heart healthy.

Cardiovascular exercise is performing an endurance activity like walking, recumbent bike, nustep machine, or the elliptical for a period of time repetitively. This type of activity strengthens your heart over time. Your heart rate should increase somewhat with the activity, and you should feel a moderate exertion. Likewise, cardiovascular exercise improves blood flow to increase healing of tissues. As well, it can help decrease chronic pain by releasing pain reducing chemicals in your brain when you exercise.

American Heart Association (2022) recommends 150 minutes per week, but also states that breaking it up into short sessions is still beneficial to your heart and lungs.

Endurance exercise recommendations for a healthy heart:

Per the American College of Sports Medicine, recommendations for endurance exercise which will make your heart stronger are: “150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, performed ideally in 20-30 min bouts”. However, many seniors are unable to tolerate that amount of time. But thankfully, research has shown even doing shorter bouts of exercise regularly is still beneficial. I have frequently encouraged seniors in retirement homes to start by adding a few laps when walking to lunch and dinner. Working with seniors in their homes, I have had them perform marching in place at a chair, sit /stands from chair, and step ups onto a stepper (with caution). Timed walks in the home or neighborhood are usually easy to implement. Having a recumbent exercise bike, recumbent elliptical, or pedaller in the home would also be a great option. (affiliate links)

Where do you start with heart exercise?

If you have any history of heart disease, CHF, chest pain with exercise, or elevated blood pressure, you need to be cleared by your physician and get specific recommendations for time, exertion, heart rate, etc. from your health care team. You may have specific parameters to follow if you take cardiac medication as well.

Keep a log of your resting vital signs: blood pressure , heart rate, oxygen. You can recheck them after exercise to see how your body reacts to the activity. (affiliate links)

  • The intensity of your exercise session will depend on your level of fitness, age, and fitness goals.
  • Warm up before and cool down after the exercise.
  • To estimate a maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. An adult’s target heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of the maximum heart rate, for moderate intensity activity.
  • You can use the exertion scale of Borg (CDC 2022) or Omni (APTA 2022) to help guide your intensity of exercise.

If you want to compare yourself to the average person your age, check out one of these 3 tests that can give helpful feedback for a senior fitness level. The 2 Minute Step Test, the 2 Minute Walk Test, and the 6 Minute Walk Test. (Shirley Ryan Ability Lab,2023) Follow the safety instructions when performing. You can also retest yourself every 3 months to assess progress! Like all exercise, start slow and add time or difficulty in small increments.

Some heart exercise is better than no heart exercise.

One thing I love about retirement facilities is that they usually have long hallways where clients can walk laps without concerns of weather. Likewise there are usually rails and chairs close by, and little to no fall hazards. Many people I have worked with have not understood how beneficial it is to do short bouts of activity, and have given up since they couldn’t walk “30 minutes” at a time! Likewise, I have found younger adults who are busy often forgo “exercise” thinking a short duration isn’t good enough. Something is always better than nothing when it comes to exercise:)

If you are limited to your home, you could try marching in place, walking laps through the house or up and down the driveway, or using an exercise machine (bike, etc) with good posture of course!

For active seniors, start by parking at the back of the store lot to add 5 minutes of walking on your way in and out of the store. Take a walk to get the mail instead of driving. Add a loop around the grocery store before you begin to shop. Start small and add time and distance as you become more comfortable with activity. Little additions can be beneficial, and begin to add up. Get creative, and increase your activity over time!

Deep breathing is a relaxation exercise for your heart.

Similar to stretching muscles to increase flexibility, blood flow and reduce stress, deep breathing is an activity that can reduce stress and increase our heart health. The heart and lungs work hand in hand to deliver oxygen to the body. Deep breathing can relax the heart muscle by increasing our intake of oxygen, and can also improve the efficiency of our lungs, so that our heart doesn’t have to work as hard. Physical and emotional stress can place a higher load on our hearts, causing us to breathe less deeply and for a shorter duration. A regular routine of deep breathing can improve our heart health and help us develop habits to manage our bodies’ reaction to stress.

A basic breathing exercise to start with:

Sitting tall in good posture, with shoulders relaxed, breath in through your nose slowly (mouth closed, about 3 seconds- belly should expand) and then breathe out through (pursed/puckered lips, about 5 seconds and abdominal tighten) 3 times, 3 times a day.

Smell the flowers, and gently blow out the candles“. This allows you to breath more efficiently and promotes relaxation.

Tips to help you remain faithful to your heart health exercises: 

May is Measure Month: “measure month” is a reminder to assess and measure your blood pressure. If your blood pressure is elevated, then set a plan to reduce it (with your health care team), and followup with regular measurements to see if what you are doing is effective. (affiliate links)

Monitor your blood pressure:

Use an organized log sheet to record your vitals, and monitor them daily at consistent times. This will come in handy to bring with you to your follow up health appointments. 

Materials: Keep any medical instructions or precautions handy.  Put them on the refrigerator with a magnet. Read and review them regularly! 

Have an updated list of medication instructions on the counter. It is imperative to follow your medication routine correctly.

Log Activity: Keep a calendar or exercise log to monitor you daily activity. You can log distance or minutes. Your phone can track steps or time. Do something to monitor your activity level and set a goal for each week. Use a chart to record your exercise and walks.  Your improvement will be most efficient if you follow your program faithfully.

Get an exercise partner!

Try to set and keep a routine with your activity.

Here is a link to an inexpensive “Cardiac Educational Packet” on Etsy, that you can edit and use for improved follow through: vitals, walking log, transfer safety, energy conservation, and post hospitalization instructions with blanks to fill in as appropriate!

Find at Creative Home Therapy on Etsy

Other heart health tips:

Keep medication bottles and items you will need daily easy to access. Be familiar with side effects and activity precautions of your medications.

Avoid extreme temperatures, especially with exercise! 

Stay hydrated with exercise.

Don’t get discouraged! Remember that improvement takes time. 

You may want to read: 10 Tips for a Senior Walking Program


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7 thoughts on “Healthy Heart Exercise

  1. Still mastering the art of deep breathing to manage stress, but I know it’s so beneficial!

  2. Amazing tips, my mother is a patient of blood pressure I hope these tips for the betterment of her health. Thanks for sharing these amazing tips I appreciate your effort.

  3. These are some really great tips! I need to step up my game and get back into my workouts since I do have high blood pressure. I will use this as a guideline.

  4. Thank you for sharing! I am always looking for new ideas to gain my health back. These are good ideas for any age.

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