6 simple exercises to improve your heart health
Your heart is one of the hardest-working muscles in your body. It pumps about 100,000 times a day, pushing blood throughout the rest of your body. Just like your other muscles, your heart needs exercise to keep it strong. And if it’s injured or damaged, you need to build it up again, just like you do when you hurt a muscle in your arms or legs.
Fortunately, there are many simple exercises that make your heart stronger and build up strength throughout your body so that it’s easier for you to perform your normal daily activities. Here are some of the activities I recommend to my clients.
Strengthening exercises for whole body fitness
These exercises focus on improving body composition by building muscle and losing fat, which studies show will improve heart health and blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol and blood sugar regulation. This will, subsequently, drastically improve your heart health.
Though it primarily builds leg strength, the squat is one of the best exercises for building or maintaining overall strength I believe it is one of the most important exercises for one to do for overall health and longevity. This exercise will keep your legs and core strong, which will allow you be more physically capable of performing everyday activities. By being more physically capable of things in general, you will be able to keep moving and the more you move, the healthier your heart will be.
The proper way to perform a squat is to:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes point out slightly.
- If you are doing a bodyweight squat, you want your arms extended out in front of you. If you are performing a barbell squat, your hands should be placed on the bar as pictured below.
- With your gaze forward, focused on a point about 10 feet ahead of yourself, and chest up, hinge back at the hips and bend at the knees to start the squat.
- Squat as deep as you can while keeping your chest up and your heels on the ground. Ideally, you want your hips to “break parallel” by going lower than your knees.
- It is okay that your knees go forward slightly while descending to the bottom of a squat.
- It is very important to keep your spine in a neutral position while squatting.
- Once you get to the bottom of the squat, keep your core muscles tight and push through your heels to elevate your body back to a standing position.
If you’re a beginner, start with a bodyweight squat or a chair squat and build up by holding heavier and heavier dumbbells while doing the squats. Once you can do five to 10 repetitions with a 45-pound weight in your hands, start squatting with a barbell.
The deadlift is another exercise that is very important for improving strength, athleticism and longevity. It strengthens the muscles in your back as well as your glutes and thigh muscles. It’s one of the best exercises, if performed correctly and carefully, to strengthen your lower back. That, in turn, can help you take part in activities like gardening and playing sports.
- Start with the barbell or other weight on the ground and you standing over it.
- Slide your mid-foot under the barbell.
- Bend over and grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip.
- Bend at the hips and knees until your shins touch the bar.
- Make sure your chest is up and your lower back is straight.
- Brace your core muscles (like you are about to get hit in your stomach) and stand up with the weight.
Push-ups build strength in your chest, shoulders and triceps (back arms) muscles. They also indirectly train your core muscles as well. Push-ups can be done in different ways, depending on your fitness level, and can be adapted to almost anyone’s exercise routine. If you are just starting out, push-ups on a table top or on your knees is a great option to start with. You will eventually progress to doing push-ups with your full bodyweight.
Proper form for a push-up looks like this:
- Place hands beneath shoulders and then pull yourself an inch forward so that your hands are slightly behind your shoulders.
- Lock in a good plank position by tilting your belt buckle toward your chin and forming your body into a straight line.
- Lockout your legs and stack your toes under your ankles.
- Lower yourself into the bottom position by engaging your upper-back muscles and pulling your shoulder blades together.
- Maintain your arms at a 45-degree angle to your body at all times.
- Press yourself away from the floor to ascend with your weight distributed evenly throughout your hands.
- Finish by pressing yourself as far away from the floor as possible so that your shoulder blades wrap around your rib cage.
In my opinion, the chin-up is equally as important as push-ups for overall upper body strength and muscular/joint balance/injury prevention. Chin-ups strengthen the pulling muscles of the upper body, primarily the lats (latissimus dorsi), rhomboids, upper/lower traps (trapezius) and biceps. It’s important to work the posterior chain (muscles in the back of the body) for overall joint health and injury prevention. The chin-up does this for the upper body.
There are several ways to perform chin-ups. If you’re a beginner or can’t perform a chin-up, try eccentric chin-ups or assisted chin-ups. Once you build up the strength, start performing chin-ups with just your bodyweight. Once bodyweight chin-ups get easy, you can add weight via a dip belt or small chain and clip.
- Grab the bar shoulder-width with your palms facing yourself.
- Get your chin over the bar by standing on your bench.
- Lower yourself slowly until your arms are straight. Jump up again for your next repetition.
Do three sets of as many reps as you can with proper form. When you can do 10 eccentric repetitions with good form, you should be able to do one chin-up.
In this technique, someone holds your legs while you do chin-ups. The trick is to do most of the work yourself. Don’t pull yourself up by pushing your feet into the hands of the person helping you. Use your back and arm muscles. Eventually, you’ll be able to pull yourself up without help.
If you have nobody to help you, use a resistance band. Loop it around one leg and the bar. The band stretches when you hang from your arms and helps you pull yourself out of the bottom, hardest position. Your arms must do most of the work to get your chin past the bar.
- Grab the pull-up bar with your palms facing yourself (shoulder-width grip).
- Hang to the pull-up-bar with straight arms and your legs off the floor.
- Pull yourself up by pulling your elbows down to the floor.
- Go all the way up until your chin passes the be bar.
- Lower yourself until your arms are straight.
When you can easily do bodyweight chin-ups, try weighted chin-ups. These exercises add weight around your waist or neck to help build strength and muscle. Keep it challenging; use enough weight so that you can do only five to eight repetitions.
The easiest way to add weight for chin-ups is using a dip belt. It has two parts: a belt that goes around your waist, and a chain that holds weights. You can also add weight by putting a heavy (15-40 lbs) chain around your neck, although this is not as comfortable as a dip belt.
Cardiovascular exercises for heart health
Cardiovascular exercise is a very important part of a training program for heart health. Many studies show significant decreased risk for heart disease when you combine cardiovascular training with strength training. But, as with strength training, the trick is not to overdo. Generally, the recommendation for cardio exercise is 150-300 minutes of moderately intense cardio exercise per week.
One of my favorite recommendations for getting your cardio for the week is a brisk 10-minute walk after every meal. This strategy is not only great for heart health, but it’s especially beneficial for people with diabetes – a risk factor for heart disease. Walking also has been shown to decrease the risk of developing diabetes.
If you don’t have time after your meals, doing longer bouts of cardio when you have time is good, too. Just try to get at least 150 minutes and a maximum of 300 minutes in per week.
Another great way to do your cardio – and my personal favorite – is rucking. Rucking is walking or hiking with a backpack that has weights in it or a weighted vest. Walking with the extra weight turns up the intensity of the walk a bit. With rucking, there is less pounding on the knees than when running, making rucking a good choice and easier for most people to incorporate into their exercise programs. This form of cardio will not only build your endurance and your heart strength, but with the extra weight, it’s also a great way to build your core stability and strength.
Start light (10-15lbs) and gradually add weight as you feel you can. Begin with 10-minute walks after meals and build up to longer walks as your endurance increases.
Keeping your heart healthy
Doing strength training at least twice a week and cardiovascular exercises for 150-300 minutes a week are great ways to get and keep your heart in top shape. So are good habits like getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night and eating a well-balanced diet with lots of fruit, vegetables and quality proteins, including chicken, fish and lean red meat.
Remember to check with your doctor before starting or adding to an exercise program.
Need some motivation to get moving? Find a class or program at one of Baylor Scott & White Health’s fitness and wellness centers.
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