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How Much Exercise Do You Need for a Healthy Heart?


Updated May 16, 2014

If your goal is to strengthen your heart and reduce your risk of heart problems, how much exercise do you really need? You've probably heard some of the general guidelines for exercise which usually recommend an hour of exercise each day. But, as Heart Disease Guide Dr. Rich notes in his article, How Much Exercise is Really Necessary?, you can get the heart benefits with about 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, which translates to about 20 minutes most days of the week.

If you want to lose fat or make major changes in your body, you'll need to do more exercise and work a little harder at it but, for health benefits, shooting for at least 20-30 minutes a day is a great place to start. Here's a breakdown of the recommendations and how you can implement them into your own life:

  1. Exercise: The recommendation to exercise generally refers to things like walking, running, cycling, swimming...any rhythmic activity that gets your heart rate up (preferably into your target heart rate zone). Most people start with a basic walking program, but you should choose things you enjoy and that you can see yourself doing on a regular basis.
  2. Moderate intensity: Moderate intensity usually means you're working at about 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate, or what would be a level 4 to 6 on this perceived exertion scale. That doesn't mean you only have to work at this level. Throwing in some high intensity bursts throughout your workout is great for your heart (not to mention your calorie-burn) and longer, slower workouts at a lower intensity have great benefits as well. Incorporating a mix of intensities will keep things interesting while benefitting your heart even more.
  3. 20-30 Minutes: The minimum recommendation for almost anyone with any goal is about 20-30 minutes but, when setting up your workouts, go by what you can handle. For example, a beginner might want to start with 5-15 minutes and work up from there. If you have a busy schedule, you may want to split your workouts, which is just as effective as continuous exercise. Don't skip exercise just because you can't do 20 minutes. Any movement is always better than nothing. Don't be afraid to be creative with your time or to start small. Start where you are, not where you want to be.
  4. Most days of the week: Like the other exercise elements, how often you exercise is up to you, what you can handle and what your schedule allows. If you're a beginner, you may start with 3 days a week with a day of rest in between. More advanced exercisers may do something every day of the week. The more you exercise, the more you'll want to exercise so, again, start with what feels good to you and go from there.

Getting Started

If you're still not motivated to get moving, these tips can help you work through the obstacles that stand in your way:

  • Get rid of excuses. One popular reason we skip exercise is because we have other, more important, things to do. Now that you know how little time it takes and how much stronger your heart will be, you can finally put this excuse to rest. Is there anything more important than a strong heart and a healthy future? Learn more about exercise excuses.
  • Focus on health. Now that you know all the positive changes your body makes every time you exercise, you can imagine those changes whenever you exercise. Imagine your heart pumping more blood with each beat, the oxygen rushing through your body, all the energy you're building every time you move. Visualizing all the positive things happening inside your body can help you follow through with your exercise commitments.
  • Keep it simple. It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the exercise choices but, as you can see from the recommendations, it doesn't take much to strengthen your heart. Start with a simple, accessible activity and decide when, where and how you'll fit it in each week. All you have to do is stick with that schedule and add more when you're ready for it.
  • Be flexible. If you can't get your workouts in, think of other ways to be more active. Walk extra laps at the grocery store or the mall, skip the escalators or take the dog for an extra-long walk. All movement is good for your heart, even if it isn't a structured workout.

For more, check out these resources for getting started with your new, heart-healthy workout program:


Fogoros, Rich, M.D. "Common Symptoms of Heart Disease." About Heart Disease. http://heartdisease.about.com/od/coronaryarterydisease/a/heartsymptoms.htm. Retrieved: Feb. 16, 2008.

Medicine Online. "How Strong is Your Heart?" Medicine Online. Retrieved Feb. 18, 2008.

Muth, Natalie Digate, MPH, RD. "Heart Disease: Is There a Gender Divide?" IDEA Fitness Journal, Nov-Dec 2007.

Roberts, Scott.o. "Heart rate response to exercise - Tech Brief". American Fitness. July-August 2002.

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