One of the five major risk factors for cardiovascular disease is a sedentary lifestyle. The other factors are obesity, smoking, high blood lipids, and high blood pressure. If a person wants to reduce their chances of experiencing a cardiac event like a heart attack or stroke or want to prevent needed bypass surgery, they will need to reduce the risk factors.

Exercising regularly and keeping physically active has many positive effects on the above risk factors. As well as promoting weight loss, exercise also helps to reduce a person’s blood pressure. What’s more, physical activity can reduce the levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – the “bad” cholesterol in the blood. It also helps to raise the levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – the “good” cholesterol. 

When combined with other modifications to lifestyle (like stopping smoking and eating well), moderate exercise can have a dramatic effect on a person’s risk of cardiovascular problems.

The benefits of exercising regularly on risk factors for cardiovascular disease

Exercising regularly helps to:

  • Increase a person’s exercise tolerance
  • Reduce a person’s body weight
  • Reduce a person’s blood pressure
  • Reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol
  • Increase “good” HDL cholesterol
  • Increase a person’s insulin sensitivity (good for diabetics)

What physiological benefits are there of exercising regularly?

Exercise has a large number of benefits to a person’s physiology. One such benefit is the improvement in strength and muscular function. Secondly, exercise improves the body’s aerobic capacity i.e. how it takes in and uses oxygen. When a person’s aerobic capacity improves, exercise becomes easier and people feel fitter. 

When a person already has cardiovascular disease, their capacity for exercise is usually lower than healthy people. When people receive a new diagnosis of heart disease, they see improvements if they follow an exercise program.

What studies show

Researchers have found that when people who have had heart attacks participate in formal exercise programs, there is a reduction in death rate between 20% and 25%. This means we can see a strong link between exercise and heart health. 

How much exercise?

For maximum benefits, it’s ideal to do around 30 minutes or more of moderate activity on most days of the week, but ideally all days. By moderate activity, we mean an intensity that is similar to a brisk walk between 3 and 4 miles per hour. Swimming, yard work, and cycling are all excellent types of exercise.

These 30 minutes a day doesn’t have to be in one go. Short bouts of exercise and activity around 10 minutes each have a similar health benefit to longer sessions when added together. 

You don’t need to be an elite athlete or marathon runner for physical activity to benefit your health significantly. These suggestions are relatively modest and one reason behind this is that we can do the most when we stop being sedentary. If you’re already moderately active, increasing your activity levels will not have as much of an impact on your health as a person increasing from a sedentary lifestyle to a moderately active one. 

Are there any risks associated with exercise for heart health

There is a very brief increase in a person’s risk of having a heart problem during exercise but this is very small indeed. For any adult without an existing heart problem, the risk of a complication or cardiac event is somewhere in the range of 1 in 400,000 to 1 in 800,000 exercise hours. If a patient already has a heart problem, the risk is around one in 62,000 hours of exercise.

For someone who is sedentary, the risk is almost 50 times that of an individual who exercises 5 times each week. Simply put, people who do regular physical activity are much less likely to have a problem. What’s more, around 90% of heart attacks actually occur during rest rather than during exercise. 

Exercise, therefore, is very safe. Nonetheless, you should ensure you’re aware of any symptoms or warning signs that might indicate a heart problem such as:

  • Discomfort in the chest (pressure or pain in the chest, neck, jaw, which may radiate to the arm, shoulder or back)
  • Shortness of breath that isn’t usual for you
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Palpitations, heart-thumping or skipping a beat

If any one of these occurs, you should stop exercising and consult a medical professional.