Woman in an exercise class

Exercise for a healthy heart

  • 27% of all UK deaths are caused by heart or circulatory disease.
  • It is recommended to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise and/or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week.
  • It’s estimated that close to half of adults in the UK are living with raised cholesterol

The benefits of exercise for heart health

It is widely accepted and supported by evidence that regular exercise has a significantly beneficial effect on our heart health. It is also strongly associated with a decrease in cardiovascular mortality, as well as the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Physically active individuals have lower blood pressure, higher insulin sensitivity and more a favourable cholesterol profile.


Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is made in the liver and is carried from the liver to wherever it is needed in the body. Raised cholesterol is considered as anything over 5 mmol/L. There are two main types of cholesterol:

  • LDL (low density lipoprotein) – This cholesterol is also often referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’, because too much of it in the blood can lead to health problems. LDL cholesterol’s job is to deliver cholesterol to the cells where it is needed; however, if there is too much of it, it can build up in the arteries and clog them up.
  • HDL (high density lipoprotein) – Often referred to as ‘good cholesterol’ because it helps the body to stay healthy. It contains lots of protein and very little cholesterol. Its job is to carry cholesterol away from the cells, back to the liver, where it can be broken down and removed from the body.

Low intensity endurance exercise has been shown to help elevate the levels of HDL cholesterol within the body and reduce LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, subsequently reducing the risk cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis (a disease of the large arteries and the primary cause of heart disease and stroke).

Blood pressure

During physical activity, increases in heart rate and blood flow around the body will increase the blood pressure; however, this will return to your normal rates when exercise has stopped. The long-term effects of regular exercise have shown to reduce resting blood pressure levels. These improvements are caused are by widening of capillaries and arteries during exercise and rest, thus preventing or reversing artery stiffness and suppressing inflammation.

Insulin sensitivity

Insulin is an important hormone made in the pancreas and one of its important roles is to allow sugars in the blood to be absorbed by the cells. If your cells become resistant to insulin, this can result in elevated blood sugars, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes as well as causing an elevation in fatty acids and LDL cholesterol in the blood. Regular low to moderate intensity exercise has shown to have a significant effect on improving insulin sensitivity and fatty acid uptake, thus reducing cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes risk.

Cardiac adaptations

During exercise, the heart is subject to increased workload to keep up with the oxygen demands of the muscles. The heart is a muscle so, much like our muscles when we perform regular resistance exercise, it will undergo various adaptations to normalise stress of recurrent exercise. The adaptations are primarily an increase in the size of the heart, as well as improved health of arteries and an increase in the capillary density around the muscles, to improve the oxygen supply to the muscles. Regular low to high intensity exercise has all shown to generate these cardiac adaptations.

Exercise recommendations

The weekly exercise guidelines are to complete 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise and/or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week. This could equate to 30 minutes of exercise five times per week.

Moderate intensity exercise will make your heart rate and breathing rate increase; you will still be able to talk, but not sing. Ideas include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Water aerobics
  • Riding a bike
  • Dancing
  • Doubles tennis
  • Hiking
  • Pushing a lawnmower

Vigorous intensity exercise will make you breathe hard and fast and not able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath. Ideas include:

  • Jogging or running
  • Fast swimming
  • Riding a bike fast or on hills
  • Walking up the stairs
  • Sports like football, rugby, hockey and netball
  • Skipping rope
  • Gymnastics
  • Martial arts

Exercises to avoid with hypertension (blood pressure greater than 140/90)

To begin with, avoid any exercise that will cause an immediate spike in blood pressure over a short period of time, such as weightlifting or powerlifting, scuba diving, squash and sprinting. This is due to the pressure it puts on the heart and walls of your arteries.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have blood pressure greater than 180/100 mmHg, speak to your doctor before starting new exercise.

Top tips to increase your weekly exercise

  • Start off by walking for at least 10 minutes every day and increase this every week by five minutes.
  • Get yourself to a leisure centre or community club where they run chair-based exercise classes! If you do this in your own home, use a sturdy chair which isn’t too soft, and has armrests for support.
  • Try the ‘couch to 5k’ challenge; a really useful progressive guide to running five kilometres. Couch to 5k guide
  • Track the pace of your walking. Using an app called Active 10; it monitors the pace of your walking and it sets you a target of 10 minutes brisk walking per day, helping you to achieve some moderate intensity exercise. The goal can be adjusted as you feel more comfortable. Active 10
  • Have a look for a local walking group, running club or team, such as walking football or netball.

Our heart health can be affected by a multitude of factors, such as cholesterol and blood pressure. However, exercise has the power to have a positive impact on many parameters than can affect our heart. Taking small steps to create a regular exercise routine can help to prevent poor heart health and improve your overall health.