Taylor Clark, Physiologist

Improve your circulation through exercise

Exercise and Fitness

18 July 2023

Your circulatory system, or cardiovascular system, plays an essential role in keeping you alive. At its centre is your heart, which pumps blood around your body through a network of arteries, veins and other smaller blood vessels. This circulatory system is responsible for delivering vital oxygen, hormones and nutrients to the cells and organs of your body.

But there are a number of issues that can prevent the system from working as it should. These can lead to poor circulation, or even heart and cardiovascular diseases.

The good news is that there are ways you can help protect yourself quickly and for the long-term. One way to do this is through physical activity. In this article, Taylor Clark, Physiologist, explores some common circulation issues and explains how exercise can help boost your cardiovascular health.

What causes poor circulation?

Poor circulation can be caused by a number of different issues. Some are more serious than others and they can affect different areas of the body. They include:


Arteries are ‘furred up’ by plaques filled with fatty substances, such as cholesterol, which build-up on the inside of your arteries.

This narrows and hardens the arteries and makes your blood flow less efficiently – causing chest pain when you exert yourself. Over time, this can become more serious and lead to coronary heart disease, a heart attack or stroke.

Blood clots

Our blood is designed to clot in case of external injury, but we can also develop blood clots (where the blood becomes more gel-like or semi-solid) that restrict the internal flow of blood.

Clots can be caused by the same plaque that furs up the arteries, with obesity and smoking for example being risk factors. They can also occur if you don’t move for long periods of time.


High levels of blood sugar can cause damage to smaller blood vessels, often in our extremities – legs, arms, feet and hands.

This, in turn, causes problems with the circulation, which is why one of the symptoms to look out for with diabetes is having numb or cold hands and feet.

Varicose veins

These are damaged and swollen veins, usually in the legs. They don’t move blood around as well as other veins, and can be caused by old age, obesity, smoking, pregnancy and long periods of standing.


Diabetes, heart disease, blood clots, varicose veins. Obesity can cause all of these issues and more, which means that it’s one of the main causes of poor circulation and other health issues that affect the heart.

If you experience any of the symptoms described above, you should visit your GP for a firm diagnosis and to discuss next steps if appropriate.

What are the health risks of poor circulation?

If you have poor circulation, you can experience various symptoms depending on which part of your body is affected and the severity of the underlying cause. Symptoms can range from cold feet or numb hands to chest pain and shortness of breath.

In more serious cases, poor circulation can lead to (or be a symptom of) cardiovascular disease (CVD). This is a term that’s used to describe any disease affecting your circulation or heart.

It’s thought that around 7.6 million people in the UK are living with heart and circulatory diseases1, which account for a quarter of all deaths in the country.2

Read our articles and NHS factsheets for more information on cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure and vascular dementia.

With these conditions claiming nearly 160,000 lives per year (or 460 a day),2 it’s important to take steps now to look after your heart health and maintain good circulation. While CVD is one of the main causes of disability and death in the UK, it’s largely preventable through healthy lifestyle choices.3

And one of the most important of these lifestyle choices is exercise.

How exercise helps boost circulatory health at any age

Exercise helps the circulation as it increases blood flow, gets your heart pumping blood around your body faster and helps flush the blood through your arteries. It also helps prevent or reduce obesity, which is one of the main causes of circulatory issues.

By being active, you can reduce your risk of developing certain heart or circulatory diseases by as much as 35%.4

The UK’s Chief Medical Officers recommend that we should be active every day. They say adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (like brisk walking or cycling) over the course of a week, or 75 minutes of intense exercise like running.5

And it’s never too early or too late to start proactively looking after your cardiovascular health.

If you’re younger, regular exercise can lower your resting heart rate and improve the strength of your heart, helping to prevent against heart disease in later life. And, if you’re taking up exercise later on (in your 60s or 70s for example), you can also experience improved heart function and reduce the risk of a coronary event, like a heart attack.

Exercises to improve circulation

As a rule, the best activity to improve circulation is aerobic exercise – the kind that makes you warm and mildly out of breath. It’s ideal because you can modify the intensity and duration of this kind of exercise to suit your level of experience, ability and health.

Aerobic exercises include:

Walking – this may be the easiest way to start boosting your circulation. It’s free, requires no special equipment and you can do it (pretty much) anywhere.

Aim for around 30 minutes, five days a week. It can slot into daily life fairly easily if you swap a car journey for a walk or get up and go outside on your lunch break.

>See our article for more on the health benefits of exercising outdoors.

Jogging – this is another great option that requires very little in the way of equipment – just a good pair of running shoes and suitable clothing.

Jogging not only gets your heart pumping and blood flowing, but it can also help build cardio endurance, bone health and improve your mental health. Not to mention the happy, natural high that comes from the release of endorphins.

If you’re a beginner, try alternating between jogging and brisk walking to start with, and don’t forget to warm up beforehand and stretch afterwards.

Swimming – this delivers similar benefits to a run or brisk walk, without the impact or pressure on your joints.

That means it’s suitable for all ages, abilities and fitness levels. The low-impact nature of swimming means you may be able to keep going for longer than you would on a run, while the resistance of the water can burn more calories by adding an element of strength-training to your aerobic workout.

Cycling – like swimming, cycling is low impact so is a good option for looking after your joints. It does, of course, require more equipment than a lot of these other exercises, and there is an element of risk associated with cycling on the road.

If you’re not confident on two wheels, you could try a cycling machine at a gym or invest in one for the home. And if you are cycling outside, be sure to wear a helmet and reflective gear.

Dancing – here’s an activity that’s fun, as well as being a great way to boost your circulatory health. You can do it on your own in the kitchen, with a partner at a local dance class or on a night out with friends.

Look for local classes like Zumba, salsa, ballroom, or even belly dancing. Otherwise just turn up the volume at home for the ultimate non-workout workout.

Join a gym or sports team – these are great options if you have trouble motivating yourself to exercise. Gyms often have group classes, and they’re ideal if you want to work out with a friend. Or, if you join a local group or team – whether it’s a running club, dance class or football team – you’ll be able to socialise as part of your fitness routine and exercise with others.

Gardening – and if you prefer something a bit less vigorous and a bit more self-sufficient, why not try gardening for some light aerobic exercise? You’ll be able to enjoy the mental health benefits of being out in nature and maybe grow some fresh, healthy veg for dinner.

If you’re new to exercise, or you haven’t done it for a long time, it’s important to start at a lower intensity and build up gradually. This is to avoid putting your heart under undue stress. And if you have a heart condition or circulatory issue, consult your GP before starting a new exercise regime.

So, no matter how much time you have or what your fitness levels are, keeping active is vital. Your circulatory health is in your hands. By undertaking some form of aerobic exercise, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, as well as a whole host of other serious health conditions.

At the same time, you’ll boost your overall physical and mental wellbeing. It doesn’t need to involve fancy equipment, fitness trends or expensive health club memberships. All it takes is some determination and the willingness to put in the work now to help you stay healthy in the future.


  1. Heart Statistics – British Heart Foundation 
  2. UK Factsheet – British Heart Foundation
  3. Cardiovascular disease – NHS
  4. Physical inactivity – British Heart Foundation
  5. UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines – UK Government

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