Is exercise good for heart health?


By Ogechi Obi. Freelance Health Writer and Datelinehealth Africa Volunteer with medical review and editorial support by The DLHA Team.

Exercise and heart health



The idea that exercise is good for heart health is supported by clear scientifc evidence.

It works directly and indirectly to protect and improve the proper functioning of the heart. It also helps in preventing and reducing several risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, like

  • Obesity
  • Hypertension
  • Arteriosclerosis (a disease of blood vessels of the body caused by several factors including high cholestrol, hypertension, diabetes, etc.)
  • Diabetes
  • Inflammation
  • Stress and
  • Others 



Cardiovascular diseases are becoming increasingly common in low and middle income countries. Consequently, lifestyle modifications such as exercise have been advocated as effective ways to prevent these diseases and improve health. 

One may therefore ask, is exercise good for heart health? 

Many quality studies exist especially in the global north that allow a confident and positive response to the question. Yes, exercise provides many tangible benefits to heart health. 

Exercise protects the heart by preventing the development of risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and diabetes mellitus. 

Several aerobic exercises, flexibility training, and moderate resistance training have shown promising results. 

This article will: 

  • Guide you through the various benefits of exercise on heart health. 
  • Provide you with accurate and reliable information about how exercise benefits  heart health, and
  • Explain the types of exercise programs you can practice for good heart health.


What are the benefits of exercise on heart health?

Exercise benefits heart health in so many ways that are direct and indirect.

  • Exercise directly helps to strengthen the heart muscles to effectively receive and pump blood to itself and the rest of the body.
  • Exercise also causes the small vessels of the heart and other body organs  to widen. This allows the vessels to increase the supply of nutrients and oxygen and effectively remove waste products from the heart and other body organs. In doing so, the heart is kept healthy for its functions.

Exercise also aids heart health indirectly through other complex mechanisms that includes: 

  • Supplementing body weight reduction.
  • Lowering high blood pressure. 
  • Raising “good” cholesterol level in blood.?
  • Lowering blood sugar and regulating insulin levels in blood.
  • Reducing the level of inflammatory chemicals (C-reactive proteins) in the body.
  • Promoting smoking cessation. The evidence in support of this benefit is modest and inconclusive and more research is needed.
  • Destressing the body and mind.

The combined effects of these direct and  indirect benefits of exercise on heart health is the reduction of the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases like hypertension, heart attack, cardiac arrest, stroke and many others. 


How does exercise benefit heart health?

Exercise benefits heart health in the ways discussed below and summarised in Table 1.

  • Body weight reduction

Body weight and body fat are among the risk factors for heart disease. 

Your risk of cardiovascular diseases increases with increasing body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference – more than 35 inches for women or more than 40 inches for men. 

The ideal body weight is 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2. Excessive weight can cause buildup of fatty deposits in blood vessels and increase blood pressure. It also increases the workload of the heart as it pumps blood to an overweight and obese body. 

Physical activity helps to support the maintenance of body weight once weight is lost through other additional means like a healthy diet. This in turn reduces the odds of you developing diabetes and hypertension and their resultant effect on the heart. Exercise combined with a healthy weight therefore contributes to improving your heart health. 

A large population based study (8) indeed confirmed this viewpoint as it showed that being physically active provided clear benefits to heart health in people who maintain a healthy weight than in those who are overweight or obese. 

You should therefore aim at weight loss, which can be achieved effectively with exercise combined with a good diet plan. 


  • Lowers high blood pressure

A high blood pressure is one of the important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases and is mostly associated with no symptoms. 

This means that you may be unaware that you have high blood pressure and consequently be silently at risk for serious cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart disease. 

Moderate to high intensity exercise can help to lower and prevent rise in your blood pressure. 

Researchers have proposed various mechanisms through which physical activity prevents hypertension. 

Benefits of exercise on heart health.A study (7) showed that in a healthy person, exercise training causes a general adjustment of the arterial wall and improves its elasticity. In so doing, arterial vessel resistance drops and so does blood pressure. 

Exercise also alters

  • the effectiveness of insulin on tissues of the body, 
  • autonomic nervous system function, 
  • blood vessel constriction regulation, and 
  • reduction in arterial stiffness 

There is a mean reduction of 3.2 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure and 1.8 mm Hg in diastolic blood pressure over 24 hours following physical activity. 

It has also been shown that a 2 mm Hg decrease in systolic blood pressure can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 4% and a 5 mmHg reduction will likely reduce it by 9%. 

A study that examined (2) 65 independent studies on the association between blood exercise and blood pressure, found that exercise has a significant blood pressure-reducing effect particularly in physically active male individuals, and those not taking antihypertensive medications.


  • Raising “good” cholesterol levels

A buildup of cholesterol deposits can occlude the blood vessels and prevent blood flow, thereby increasing the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attack. 


Cholesterol is transported throughout the body by lipoproteins – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) called the bad cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) called the good cholesterol. 


While LDL cholesterol can build up and form plaques in the blood, HDL helps in absorbing and transporting cholesterol to the liver for it to be removed from the body. 


Exercise improves the level of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. 


A Mediterranean cohort study (6) found that physically active women had a more pronounced increase in HDL cholesterol than their sedentary counterparts. In men with low HDL and high triglyceride concentrations, regular endurance exercise (3) significantly improved their HDL cholesterol levels. 


On the other hand, reductions in LDL cholesterol levels were  shown to decrease the incidence of heart attacks in 170,000 participants in a randomized trial. (1) A randomized trial produces a more reliable level of evidence as it is a study that divides subjects or participants by chance into separate groups in order to compare different treatments or interventions.


For good heart health, it is important to maintain a good lipid profile, and regular moderate intensity exercise does help you to achieve “good” cholesterol levels in the blood.


  • Lowers blood sugar levels and the risk of Diabetes Mellitus

People with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease. 

Apart from damaging the nerves and blood vessels, high blood sugar can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol deposits, and other risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. 

Exercise lowers blood sugar levels by improving the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which controls the glucose level. 

During physical activity, the sugar level reduces because the muscles utilize and burn glucose for energy. Additionally, exercise lowers your glycosylated hemoglobin values (i.e HbA1c) - a good indicator of reduced blood glucose levels.

There is a negative relationship between physical activity and the incidence of type 2 diabetes. 

Increasing your physical activity level improves your heart health by lowering your risk of developing diabetes, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This is also achieved even in high-risk women with a history of gestational diabetes. (9)


What exercises that are good for heart health?

Some exercises may be more suited for you if you are looking to improve your heart health. 

Aerobic exercise and resistance training, either alone or in combination are effective in reducing the risk factors for heart disease. 

Keeping the body and mind flexible with some flexibility exercises also have an additional benefit for the heart. 

Some of the best exercises for heart health include:

  • Aerobic exercise

black couple walking brisklyBrisk walking, jogging, running, jumping rope, swimming, cycling, and even dancing are beneficial to heart health. 

Jogging training and other aerobics reduce blood pressure and the longer the duration of the exercise training, the more the effect on blood pressure. 

Aerobic exercises can increase the level of HDL cholesterol by 13% and reduce LDL cholesterol by 5%. This improves the cholesterol ratio and reduces the risk of developing heart disease. 

A review (5) study suggested that the volume, intensity, frequency, and duration of aerobic exercises have some impact on raising HDL levels and improving the lipid profile. 

It is recommended to engage in at least a 30-minute daily moderate exercise for five days a week or a 75-minute vigorous physical activity a week for a healthy heart condition.


  • Resistance training

Resistance trainingThis form of exercise lowers the total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and body fat. 

Surprisingly, low-to-moderate-intensity resistance training, with increased volume of movement and repetitions provides greater benefit to the lipid profile than high-intensity resistance training. 

Resistance training improves belly fat, muscle mass, and body composition. 

You can achieve resistance training with resistance bands, external weights like dumbbells, or doing some push-ups or squats. 

Experts recommend at least two non-consecutive exercise training days a week for good heart health.


  • Flexibility training

Stretching exercisesFlexibility exercise may not have a direct effect but it prepares the heart for more effective physical activity training. This can be achieved with simple stretching, yoga, and Tai Chi programs. 

Similar to the evidence of improved heart conditions from aerobic exercises, a 2020 review (4) article showed that stretching exercise reduced arterial stiffness and diastolic blood pressure and improved the function of tissues lining the blood vessel walls in middle-aged and older persons. In addition, it reduced stress and helped relaxation of the mind.



Exercise is one of the ingredients for good heart health. It effectively improves the major modifiable risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease and provides overall well-being. 

It’s even more interesting that engagement in such simple exercises as stretching, yoga, and routine low-to-moderate intensity physical activity can offer you great benefits for heart health. 

Be sure to seek professional advice to know the right exercise program for you, particularly if you have any underlying medical conditions or have doubts about how to get started.



  1. Baigent, C., Blackwell, L., Emberson, J., Holland, L. E., Reith, C., Bhala, N., ... & Collins, R. (2010). Efficacy and safety of more intensive lowering of LDL cholesterol: a meta-analysis of data from 170,000 participants in 26 randomised trials. Lancet (London, England), 376(9753), 1670-1681. Available from here.
  1. Carpio-Rivera, E., Moncada-Jiménez, J., Salazar-Rojas, W., & Solera-Herrera, A. (2016). Acute effects of exercise on blood pressure: a meta-analytic investigation. Arquivos brasileiros de cardiologia, 106, 422-433. Carpio-Rivera, E., Moncada-Jiménez, J., Salazar-Rojas, W., & Solera-Herrera, A. (2016). Acute effects of exercise on blood pressure: a meta-analytic investigation. Available from here
  1. Couillard, C., Despre?s, J. P., Lamarche, B., Bergeron, J., Gagnon, J., Leon, A. S., & Bouchard, C. (2001). Effects of endurance exercise training on plasma HDL cholesterol levels depend on levels of triglycerides. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 21(7), 1226-1232.
  1. Kato, M., Nihei Green, F., Hotta, K., Tsukamoto, T., Kurita, Y., Kubo, A., & Takagi, H. (2020). The efficacy of stretching exercises on arterial stiffness in middle-aged and older adults: a meta-analysis of randomized and non-randomized controlled trials. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(16), 5643. Available from here.
  1. Mann, S., Beedie, C., & Jimenez, A. (2014). Differential effects of aerobic exercise, resistance training and combined exercise modalities on cholesterol and the lipid profile: review, synthesis and recommendations. Sports medicine, 44, 211-221. Available from here
  1. Skoumas, J., Pitsavos, C., Panagiotakos, D. B., Chrysohoou, C., Zeimbekis, A., Papaioannou, I., ... & Stefanadis, C. (2003). Physical activity, high density lipoprotein cholesterol and other lipids levels, in men and women from the ATTICA study. Lipids in health and disease, 2, 1-7. Available from here.
  1. Thijssen, D. H., Dawson, E. A., van den Munckhof, I. C., Birk, G. K., Cable, N. T., & Green, D. J. (2013). Local and systemic effects of leg cycling training on arterial wall thickness in healthy humans. Atherosclerosis, 229(2), 282-286. Available from here.
  1. Valenzuela, P. L., Santos-Lozano, A., Barrán, A. T., Fernández-Navarro, P., Castillo-García, A., Ruilope, L. M., ... & Lucia, A. (2022). Joint association of physical activity and body mass index with cardiovascular risk: a nationwide population-based cross-sectional study. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 29(2), e50-e52. Available from here
  1. Yang, J., Qian, F., Chavarro, J. E., Ley, S. H., Tobias, D. K., Yeung, E., ... & Zhang, C. (2022). Modifiable risk factors and long term risk of type 2 diabetes among individuals with a history of gestational diabetes mellitus: prospective cohort study. bmj, 378. Available from here.



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Published:May 29, 2023

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