Staying Active With Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2024

If you are living with cardiovascular disease (CVD), it does not mean giving up on having an active lifestyle. You can still engage in regular physical activity. It just might look different than before your CVD diagnosis. Even small amounts of movement are beneficial for heart health.1

The type of exercise you can safely do depends on the type of CVD you have. Before starting a new exercise routine, check with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you. Tell them if you have:1,2

  • Recently had a heart attack
  • Any current symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Had any recent surgeries or procedures for your heart
  • Diabetes

Heart benefits of physical activity

When you exercise, you strengthen your heart muscle. This improves the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the body, delivering vital oxygen and nutrients.2-4

Regular exercise strengthens the heart by:2-4

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol
  • Managing weight
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improving blood circulation
  • Improving blood oxygen levels
  • Releasing endorphins that improve mood and reduce stress

Inactivity is a major risk factor for CVD. But studies show that people who exercise regularly have a much lower risk of developing serious heart conditions like heart attack and coronary artery disease.2-4

Exercise also reduces your risk of other serious health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Both of these conditions are risk factors for CVD. For those who have had a prior heart attack, regular exercise can help prevent a second one from occurring.2-4

Exercise guidelines for adults with CVD

The kind of exercise that has the most benefits for your heart and lungs is called aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is any physical activity that makes your heart beat faster and makes you need more oxygen than normal.3

Experts recommend that adults aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. The exercise should be spread across several days. According to the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine, you should combine a mix of aerobic exercise with muscle-strengthening activities throughout the week.1,3

Be mindful of your limitations, and progress at a pace that suits your fitness level. For even better heart health, pair regular exercise with a healthy diet.1,3

For those with CVD, be sure you are working your heart but not working it too hard. Allow for at least 5 to 10 minutes of warm-up and cool down every time you exercise. A cardiac rehabilitation program can give you guidance on safe and effective exercises that will strengthen your heart at a healthy pace.2

How to get started being active

Begin with activities you enjoy, whether it is walking, swimming, or cycling. Start slow and gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts.3,4

Consider breaking up your exercise into shorter sessions throughout the day to make it more manageable. The company of a friend or family member also can make exercising more enjoyable and hold you accountable.3,4

Examples of ideal exercises for the heart

Here are some examples of exercises that strengthen the heart:5

  • Aerobic exercises – Walking, swimming, cycling, and dancing are excellent choices for improving heart health.
  • Strength training – Incorporate light to moderate resistance exercises to strengthen muscles and bones.
  • Flexibility exercises – Stretching helps improve range of motion and reduces the risk of injury.
  • Balance exercises – Practice activities that enhance balance, such as yoga or tai chi, to prevent falls.

Pace yourself and listen to your body

When exercising with CVD, be sure to listen to your body and pace yourself. Pay attention to how you feel during and after exercise. Adjust your exercise routine as needed, and rest when you need to. Consistency is key, but so is understanding and respecting your body's limits.2

How to stay safe when exercising with CVD

Know the warning signs and symptoms that may indicate a problem during exercise. If you have chest pain or discomfort, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeats, or nausea, stop exercising and get medical help right away. Ignoring these warning signs could lead to serious complications.2

Other ways to stay safe while exercising include:2

  • Consult your healthcare provider. Before starting any exercise program, get clearance from your doctor and discuss any specific guidelines or restrictions.
  • Choose appropriate activities. Opt for low-impact, joint-friendly exercises that suit your fitness level and health condition. If possible, walking is a wonderful exercise to start with.
  • Monitor your heart rate. Pay attention to your heart rate, and stay within the target heart rate range your doctor recommends. While exercising, you can check your pulse by feeling your wrist just under the thumb. Count the number of heartbeats per minute to ensure you stay in a healthy, safe range.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water regularly to prevent dehydration.
  • Be consistent. Stick to a regular exercise routine, but be flexible and adjust based on how you feel.
  • Have an emergency plan. Always exercise in a safe environment, and have a plan in place for emergencies.

Engaging in physical activity with cardiovascular disease is not only possible but highly beneficial. Exercise is recommended for everyone to maintain good heart health. Talk with your healthcare team about ways you can add more movement to your daily life.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.