How to exercise for heart health at home

Fitness & Sports Health

by Katelyn D. Brown, MS EP-CCRP

Mar 15, 2021

In the era of COVID-19, many people face new challenges in remaining active. It is well known that exercise and an active lifestyle greatly reduces risk factors for and risk of developing cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the US. However, many traditional methods of exercise are now inaccessible (gyms, sporting groups, cardiac rehabilitations, etc.). 

Here are some resources, recommendations and information from the experts to help keep you moving toward a healthy heart.

Current recommendations for exercise

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology all recommend 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes or more of vigorous aerobic exercise per week to reduce risk of heart disease. In addition, it is recommended to perform strengthening exercises at least twice a week. 

Meeting this recommendation may seem overwhelming and unattainable. But don’t worry, this activity can be broken down into small segments of 10 minutes throughout each day of the week. You can also combine the moderate exercise and vigorous exercise minutes to meet your goals. We’ll dive into what this looks like later on. 

Related: 5 common myths about heart failure

Measuring exercise intensity

Exercising at home or independently means you will have to find a method for measuring your intensity (i.e. how hard you are working) that works best for you. This way, you can make sure you are exercising in the correct range to strengthen your heart. 

For most people, moderate intensity exercise would make you breathe slightly faster but won’t make you lose your breath. For example, you could carry on a conversation at this level but probably not sing. For most people, moderate intensity activities that can be done while social distancing include brisk walking (2.4–4 mph), biking (5–9 mph), active yoga or recreational swimming.

Vigorous exercise would make it difficult to speak more than a couple words without taking a breath and you would notice your breathing has become quick and deep. These types of activities typically are jogging or running, biking (≥10 mph) and swimming laps. 

Aside from how you feel, you can measure your intensity by your heart rate. Many people have fitness devices or cellphones that have built-in heart rate monitors. However, you can also measure your heart rate by feeling your inner wrist with your middle and pointer fingers and counting how many beats you feel in a minute (or 30 seconds x2, or 15 seconds x4). Knowing this value, you can compare your current work rate with a percentage of your max heart rate (typically, this is estimated by subtracting your age from 220). 

Moderate intensity is usually 50-70% of your max heart rate and vigorous intensity is 70-85% of your max heart rate. This method should be used cautiously in patients with heart disease as many heart medications will alter how your heart rate responds to exercise. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns or questions about how much or how intensely you should be exercising.

As for strengthening exercises, choose an activity and a resistance that will make you tired after about 10-15 repetitions, utilizing large muscle groups.  

Building your daily home exercise program

Staying active at home is easier than you might think. Here are a few ways those exercise recommendations can play out in real life:

William Walksalot takes a brisk, 10 to 20-minute walk with his dogs every morning and evening. Since he does not own any weights or exercise equipment, he uses household items to do some resistance exercises. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he does bicep curls with a half-gallon of milk, push-ups on his table and chair squats on his couch.

Molly Millennial meets up with her friends on Zoom twice a week to do an internet group exercise class. She has also found a great app for home yoga and keeps track of her heart rate and activity on her smartwatch.

Keep these tips in mind as you’re thinking through ways to get moving throughout your day:

  1. Some exercise is better than no exercise, and most often, more exercise is better than less at lowering risk of cardiovascular disease.
  2. Exercise and physical activity goals can be met by breaking your goal up into 10+ minute bouts. 
  3. If you are sedentary and want to begin an exercise routine, begin with light-intensity activity before progressing to moderate or vigorous intensity. 
  4. If you have symptoms of heart disease or have been diagnosed with a heart condition, see a doctor prior to starting a moderate or vigorous intensity exercise program. 
  5. Get creative! You don’t need expensive equipment or a gym membership to improve your heart health; utilize online resources and communication platforms to get inspired and stay motivated. 

Find a heart specialist and give these exercises a try to get on the path to better heart health today.

About the Author

Katelyn D. Brown, MS EP-CCRP, is an exercise physiologist at Walter I Berman Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation, part of Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas. Katelyn has expertise in functional assessment, fitness testing, exercise prescription and risk factor modifications in patients with risk factors for or history of cardiovascular disease. Katelyn has a passion for research involving the benefits of exercise in improving quality of life and clinical outcomes in patients with acute and chronic disease, as well as healthy populations. She is an advocate for individualized, patient-centered rehabilitation and often presents evidence-based practice at national and international conferences. When she is not busy caring for patients, Katelyn enjoys practicing yoga, meditation and cycling.

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