Regular exercise has many health benefits: It helps control your weight, raise your HDL cholesterol level, and improve the work capacity of your heart. It also reduces your blood pressure and improves your body's responsiveness to insulin (thus offering protection from type 2 diabetes). In addition, it relieves stress. All of this can help you prevent a heart attack.

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Many people think they need to engage in strenuous physical activity for exercise to be worthwhile, but that's not the case. Even brisk walking can be a healthy form of exercise if performed regularly.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults get 30 minutes or more of physical activity on five days of the week. This activity should be performed at moderate intensity—equivalent to a 3- to 3.5-mile-per-hour walking pace or 50 to 70% of your maximum heart rate (to calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220).

You do not need to do all 30 minutes at one time. Short bursts of activity for 10 minutes, three times a day, are enough to reduce the risk of a heart attack, as long as the activity is performed at moderate intensity. These activities can include walking up stairs, walking short distances instead of driving, and doing calisthenics or pedaling a stationary bicycle while watching television. Gardening, housework, raking leaves, dancing, and playing with your grandchildren also can count as part of the 30-minute total—if they are performed at an intensity that corresponds to brisk walking. If you do lower-intensity activities, you should do them more often and for longer than 30 minutes.

While 30 minutes of exercise a day is enough to reduce your risk of a heart attack, you'll need to exercise more if you want to lose weight or maintain a weight loss. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 60 to 90 minutes of daily exercise to lose weight and keep the weight off. If this sounds even more daunting than 30 minutes five days a week, remember that the 60 to 90 minutes can be done in short segments spread out during the day (for example, some gardening in the morning, an afternoon swim, and a walk after dinner). Also remember that any amount of exercise is better than no exercise at all.

If you are a man over age 45 or a woman over age 55 and plan to begin a vigorous exercise program, consult your physician, particularly if you are sedentary. If you already have coronary heart disease or are at high risk for it, you should also see your physician before beginning any new strenuous physical activities. Although rare, heart attacks may be triggered by unusually high levels of physical exertion in sedentary individuals. Thus, you need to incorporate physical activity gradually into your life, and increase the intensity slowly.

Achieve and Maintain a Healthy Weight

A low-saturated-fat diet combined with regular exercise will help you lose weight and keep it off. Weight loss is the most effective way to lower high triglyceride levels. It also helps raise HDL cholesterol levels. In general, every 2 lbs of weight loss will produce a 0.5-mg/ dL rise in HDL.

Weight loss is one of the first steps in the treatment of type 2 diabetes (a risk factor for heart attacks). In addition, a weight loss of as little as 5 to 10 lbs may lower blood pressure enough to make blood pressure-lowering medication unnecessary. Blood pressure levels drop even more with a combination of weight loss, exercise, and medication.

Weight loss can also improve insulin sensitivity (how well the hormone insulin removes glucose from the bloodstream after a meal). Even a modest weight loss—in the range of 5 to 10% of your body weight—can help restore insulin sensitivity and greatly lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Publication Review By: Roger S. Blumenthal, M.D. and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 10 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 15 Jan 2015