Cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease have been one of the most common causes of death in Germany for years, according to the Federal Statistical Office. For many of these diseases, lack of exercise and being overweight are important contributors - regular training could prevent them in many cases.
Physical activity has been shown to have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. Even if the heart is damaged, targeted, individual training can often improve the state of health and increase life expectancy.
Which sports are best for strengthening the heart? How often and for how long should you exercise? And what are the rules for a sick heart? We will inform you about this in this article.
If you would like to delve deeper into the subject, please use the sources and tips given below to read on.
Important NOTE: In general, if you have an existing heart disease, it is imperative that you have a sports training session with the doctor treating you before starting.
First of all, it must be checked whether cardiac training is permitted and sensible in individual cases. If the answer is yes, an individual fitness plan is drawn up depending on the type and severity of the disease and other factors such as age, weight and general fitness. In addition to suitable sports and the length and frequency of the training, it should also include the permitted intensity. Among other things, this is based on an individual pulse limit that must not be exceeded. With regular check-ups, you can ensure that the training has the desired effect and make adjustments if necessary.
If you have not been diagnosed with a heart disease so far, but have never exercised or paused for a long time, are overweight, or experience pain in the area of the heart, shortness of breath, greatly increased heart rate or heart stumbling during exercise, you should take a medical examination as a precaution undergo before starting any workout.
Any new sporting activity should always be started slowly. This also applies to perfectly healthy people. The rule of thumb provides a good orientation for getting started: you should be able to have a relaxed conversation while moving without getting out of breath.
Strengthening the heart through cardio training - a brief overview
In the following section you will find the most important information in brief.
- How can you train the heart? With physical exertion, the pumping power of the heart increases, which strengthens and enlarges the muscle during regular training.
- Effect: Regular physical activity strengthens the cardiovascular system relieves stress, can improve blood lipid levels and blood pressure and help prevent / reduce excess weight.
- Suitable sports: Endurance sports such as jogging, cycling, swimming, hiking, walking and rowing, combined with weight training units.
- Unsuitable sports: Ball sports like soccer, handball are rather unsuitable. If necessary, consult a doctor here.
- Duration and frequency of training: Healthy adults should take 2.5 to 5 hours of exercise a week as a preventative measure. People with existing heart disease should only train under specialist supervision after medical permission (cardio sports groups) or draw up an individual fitness plan with the doctor treating them.
- Build movement into everyday life: Everyday life should be designed to be as dynamic as possible. Climbing stairs, walking or cycling, walking, etc. are well suited to contribute to a more heart-friendly lifestyle.
- Contraindications: Acute febrile infections, acute inflammation of the heart such as myocarditis (myocarditis), acute myocardial infarction, unstable angina pectoris, uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure) and dangerous arrhythmias.
- Important NOTE: If you already suffer from a heart disease, are overweight, have not exercised so far, or if you experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, heart stumbling, chest tightness or pain in the heart area during exercise, please be sure to have a medical check-up and an individual fitness plan before starting the training create.
Some facts about the heart
The heart has the shape of a rounded cone and is located in the chest between the two lungs. About two thirds of the heart is in the left, one third in the right half of the chest. The weight of a healthy heart corresponds to about 0.5 percent of the body weight and is therefore between 250 and 350 grams. It is about one and a half times the size of the human fist in which it strikes. It measures an average of twelve centimeters in length and eight centimeters in width.
The heart can be compared to a pump that ensures that the blood flows through the entire body. Every cell in the body is supplied with nutrients and oxygen via the blood. In addition, it transports end products of the metabolism.
When the heart is at rest, around five liters of blood per minute are pumped through the body. When you exercise, your performance increases as your heart beats faster and pumps more vigorously. In extreme cases, a transport of up to 25 liters of blood per minute is possible. The total amount of blood in the body always remains the same; in an adult this is five to six liters.
How can you train the heart?
The heart is a hollow muscle, i.e. a muscle that encloses a cavity. So you can train your heart like other muscles. How does that work specifically?
With physical exertion, the pumping power of the heart increases, which strengthens and enlarges the muscle during regular training. This way, he can pump a large amount of blood into the body with every stroke. This increases the efficiency of the heart.
In addition, with regular physical training, increased blood flow creates new blood vessels (capillary sprout), which improves the supply of oxygen to the heart.
Lowering the risk of heart disease - what is the effect of exercise?
As described in the previous section, the heart is trained and strengthened through regular exercise. In addition, various processes in the metabolism are triggered by sporting activities, which have a positive influence on blood lipid levels and can protect the vessels against the development of hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis). In particular, endurance sports can improve the relationship between harmful LDL cholesterol and protective HDL cholesterol. Regular physical activity should also be an important factor in preventing cardiac arrhythmias.
Another healthy effect of regular training is the possible prevention and reduction of excess weight. Elevated blood pressure levels can also be normalized, preventing many cardiovascular diseases.
In addition, sporting activities are among the stress killers. After a busy day, many people are exhausted, tired and stressed. Exercise is a great way to clear your head. This also benefits the psyche from regular exercise. This is because regular jogging, walking or other sports activities can reduce stress hormones. And since stress is another important factor for the development of many cardiovascular diseases in addition to lack of exercise and obesity, you are doing something good for your heart.
Which types of movement are good for the heart?
For decades, only endurance sports were considered suitable cardio training, especially if you already have a heart disease. Endurance training can be carried out by most people without problems and even with low intensity. Jogging, cycling, swimming, hiking, walking and rowing: all of these are sports that - consciously and carefully executed - do not strain the heart.
However, a study carried out at the University Clinic in Copenhagen in 2019 showed that endurance training is not necessarily the better choice: Both endurance and strength training reduced the amount of unhealthy fat mass around the heart of the study participants. However, only strength training was able to reduce the particularly risky so-called pericardial fat tissue.
Basically, exercise has a positive effect on heart health. Only a few clinical pictures are exempt from this (see section: Contraindications to cardiac training). You should choose a sport that is fun and easy to keep up with. Because only regular and long-term training will bring positive results. However, please be sure to discuss the frequency, duration and intensity of the training with your doctor before starting, especially if you already suffer from heart problems.
Important NOTE: At the end of their training, many people really want to "step on the gas" again. However, this should never be done with a damaged heart! The optimal cardio training ends with a gentle, leisurely run-out or a quiet end to the training session.
Hiking: optimal cardiovascular training
If sport in a gym or gym is not for you, hiking could be an alternative. This is a good way to train the heart gently. It strengthens the cardiovascular system and boosts fat burning more than jogging, for example. Especially in the lowlands, almost everyone can hike without risk.
Caution should be exercised if the hiking route encompasses steeper mountains and is also located at higher altitudes. Training status and previous illness play a major role here. A steep mountain or the increasingly thin air can then lead to an overload of the heart.
It is therefore necessary to get used to a holiday in the mountains. Also, you should only choose routes where you don't overexert yourself. During the entire hike, whether in the lowlands or in the mountains, a conversation without breathlessness should always be possible. It is best to get medical advice in advance whether hiking is suitable for you as a cardio workout and how much you can challenge yourself.
Which sports should you avoid if you have existing heart diseases?
In the case of existing medical conditions, an overload of the heart must be avoided. Ball sports, in particular, are rather unsuitable because they encourage you to get the most out of yourself so that you can still reach the ball. Ball sports and other highly demanding sports should only be practiced in the presence of heart disease after consultation with a doctor.
Heart training - how often and how long should you exercise?
Depending on the state of health of the trainee, various sporting activities are recommended and the intensity of the training must be individually adjusted.
Recommendation for healthy people
For healthy, adult people, the American Heart Association recommends at least 2.5 hours of endurance training per week to prevent cardiovascular diseases, spread over several days, supplemented by moderate to strenuous strength training on at least two days per week. Over time, you should ideally get five hours of training a week. The intensity should increase with increasing fitness.
Recommendation for people with existing heart problems
In the past, the opinion was that heart patients should be prescribed rest and that they should be careful. This view is out of date in most cases (for exceptions see "Contraindications to cardio training"). Cardio training for cardiac patients requires individual medical advice in advance.
Here it depends on the exact type and form of the disease as well as accompanying circumstances such as weight, training status and age, which training can be carried out how often and in what intensity.
Cardiac sports groups are a good way to engage in sports under professional supervision and to exchange ideas with people who have similar problems and to motivate each other. Cardiac sports groups already exist in most major cities.
The stamina pays off in many patients. The quality of life and performance improve. The general resilience increases, especially because the body is better supplied with oxygen through training. As a result, many everyday activities are no longer so difficult. The quickest way to achieve success is to do a certain amount of exercise every day. The heart should be slowly but steadily brought to endurance.
Build movement into everyday life
Many people are so involved in work and everyday life that they have little time to do sports. However, this should not be an excuse for not moving enough. Because movement can also be integrated into the normal daily routine: Instead of driving daily to your destination by car, bus or train, part of the journey can be covered on foot or by bike. You don't even need special sportswear for this. Climbing stairs is also a good way to train the heart.
Even a regular evening walk can be heart training. Tight walking is preferable to strolling, or short, fast intervals are built into the otherwise comfortable walk. However, caution also applies here to previous heart diseases - any overloading of the heart must be avoided at all costs. The pulse should not increase too much here and normal entertainment should still be possible without getting out of breath.
Contraindications to cardio training
Under no circumstances should training be carried out for acute febrile infections and acute inflammations of the heart, such as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). Absolute calm is the order of the day.
Heart training is also contraindicated in acute heart attacks, unstable angina, uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure) and dangerous arrhythmias.
In general, medical advice should be sought for existing illnesses before starting sporting activities. (kh, sw)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Magistra Artium (M.A.) Katja Helbig, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
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