Which exercises are the best for your heart?

by Larry Weinrauch, M.D. Health Professional

Our country has expanded the horizons for exercise. We now have facilities of all types and people are no longer considering it strange to set aside some time each day to take care of their bodies. But time is limited, so what exercise is best for you and your heart?

The heart is not the only part of the body that benefits from exercise. So doing exercise only to benefit that single of the body is not wise. Exercise also helps you focus your mind, and affects your mood and sleep patterns. Exercise affects your muscular strength and bone composition. So the plan should be to do what is needed for the whole body.

Types of exercise:

There are many different types of exercise, but they can all be classified as follows:

Isometric exertion. In such exercises, the muscle pulls or pushes against a high resistance. Typical examples of such exercise are weight lifting and push ups. The muscles involved thicken and become more powerful over time. This type of exercise raises blood pressure more than it raises the heart rate. While it is excellent for muscular development and strength, and helpful in bone strength and compactness (increasingly important as we age or if we develop osteoporosis), it is not the best exercise for the heart. The increase in blood pressure associated with heavy weight lifting puts stress on our arteries and heart out of proportion to its needs. In addition, if you start out with high blood pressure, the additional pressure on your vessels is not helpful. Competitive weight lifters in good condition easily get their systolic pressure in the 300mmHg range. Modest isometric exercise is useful if the blood pressure is well controlled. It is contraindicated in the presence of valve disease as the stress on the heart muscle can be overwhelming.

Isotonic exertion. Such exercises involve muscle contraction for motion more that resistance. Examples include walking, running and such sports as golf, tennis, swimming, soccer, baseball and most calisthenics. Isotonic exercises tend to raise the heart rate more than it the blood pressure. These exercises lead to slimmer and longer muscle. Swimmers and runners look different than weight lifters. Isotonic exercise is often called "cardio" by many people as it is good for cardiac conditioning. Exercises with little resistance do not increase bone mass, strength or compactness. Consequently, activities such as swimming may be excellent for cardiovascular tone, but are not sufficient to avoid the consequences of osteoporosis.

Stretch exertion: Although various types of stretching of muscles can increase suppleness of you muscles and joints, this does not represent a true muscle exercise. The purpose for muscle is to contract (not stretch), to move the bones upon which the muscle is inserted. Although it is good to be supple and able to assume positions that may be difficult, there is no benefit to the heart from muscle stretching. There is also no particular cardiovascular risk, and people feel better after they do such exercises. Some people have suggested that stretching may reduce muscle cramping and injury but there is no real medical proof to this. When stretch is combined with maneuvers to increase core body strength, however, there are muscular and bone benefits that have been well demonstrated. Stretching is an integral part of yoga, tai chi of all sorts, and Pilates, among other techniques. None of these techniques are limited to stretching, and this is why they have shown benefits. Interestingly, the slow movements of these techniques are associated with some lowering of stress and blood pressure as well as some benefits for balance. I have found that in patients with neurologic problems causing difficulties with walking that tai chi may be particularly helpful in improving balance and coordination.

An exercise program that is good for you is one that you can keep up for a long time, and that is appropriate for your body. It will be much easier to keep up such a program if you enjoy it and if it doesn't require you to change your life. So find a program that you can appreciate and enjoy it

Larry Weinrauch, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
Larry Weinrauch, M.D.

Larry Weinrauch is a cardiologist in Watertown, Massachusetts and is affiliated with Mount Auburn Hospital. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Heart Health, High Blood Pressure, and High Cholesterol.