Which Exercise is Best for Your Heart?
The world of exercise and fitness is full of clichés. Some of them are ridiculous—“no pain, no gain” comes to mind—and the majority of them are little more than thinly-disguised judgements against anyone who isn’t a gym rat. But many of the things that we think of as clichés were, when someone first said them, not just true but strikingly true. And that even includes a handful of fitness clichés. Like this one:
Question: What kind of exercise is the best one for X?
Answer: The one you’ll actually DO.
This is hands-down the truest statement I’ve ever heard about exercise, and it’s as true when it comes to heart health as to anything else. It doesn’t matter what kind of amazing benefits any given workout may offer if it’s not something you’ll actually jump in and do. So the first rule when it comes to exercise for your heart is this: pick something you enjoy. And if you just don’t enjoy exercise, period, don’t panic. There are plenty of activities out there that will give you a workout but don’t feel like exercise when you’re doing them.
Which should you do—aerobic or resistance training?
The debate has raged for years, and still does in some circles. In the end, the answer is simple: you need both—because each has a different effect…and you need flexibility exercise too. Each one has its place, and all three work together. Here’s what each type of exercise does:
Flexibility training: It doesn’t directly affect your heart, but it’s a necessary foundation for everything else. Flexibility training improves your balance and stability, which opens a much wider range of possibilities for other exercises. Flexibility is critical when it comes to many types of aerobic exercise or resistance training.
Flexibility training also means your muscles can work harder. Tight muscles just can’t work to their full capacity. This means you have to work harder at aerobic exercise to get the same benefit, and that you can’t keep it up as long. Better flexibility also means you’re less likely to suffer falls or other injuries.
Aerobic exercise: This is what probably springs to mind for most of us when we hear the word “exercise.” Aerobic exercise includes things like running or bicycling, or even walking at a brisk pace. It gets your heart pumping harder and improves your circulation. It affects the health of your whole circulatory system, from making blood vessels more flexible (thus lowering blood pressure) to improving how well your heart pumps.
Resistance training: Also known as strength training, resistance training builds lean muscle and burns fat—and continues to burn it for some time after you finish working out. And as the name implies, it also builds muscular strength. And contrary to popular belief, resistance training does have some serious cardiovascular benefits. It improves blood flow to the arms and legs, and recent research found that resistance training also significantly lowered blood pressure just as aerobic exercise does—and the effect lasted about 20 percent longer.
For optimal heart health, you need to combine all three types of exercise.
By now you’re probably thinking, “That’s all well and good, but what should I actually be DOING?” And we come back to the cliché I mentioned earlier: the best workout is the one you’ll actually do. What works for you depends on a lot of things—your current fitness level, your overall health, your level of flexibility and more. If you have arthritic knees, for example, running isn’t going to be a good option for you. Yoga, on the other hand, might fit the bill nicely. That said, here’s what I recommend:
#1 exercise for heart health: swimming
Swimming combines the benefits of all three types of exercise in one package. It’s a whole-body workout that uses all the muscle groups and gets your heart rate up like any good aerobic exercise should. It improves your flexibility and builds strength too. In fact, research shows that swimming has all the benefits of running, but without the impact-related wear and tear on your joints.
Two 2009 studies from Cooper Clinic in Dallas, for example, compared swimming to other forms of exercise. They found that swimmers and runners had the best blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, and that swimmers were least likely to die from any cause over a 13-year follow-up.
Swimming is something that virtually anyone can do, regardless of their fitness level or overall health. Like yoga, swimming lets you match your level of effort to your level of ability. And it’s one of the best forms of exercise for people with arthritis.
Bottom line? If you don’t already know how to swim, here’s a great reason for taking classes at your local Y. It has all the benefits of more “conventional” aerobic exercise, but without the stress on your joints—plus it stretches and strengthens at the same time. So dive in. Your heart will thank you.
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