Written by: Emily J., MSc RD
Reviewed by: Dr. Vimal Ramjee, MD, FACC
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For our third installment of Heart Health month, we’re busting some of the most common myths about heart health and exercise — and offering tips on what to do instead.
It’s well-accepted by experts that regular exercise is one of the most meaningful and impactful levers you can pull when it comes to improving your metabolic and heart health, along with balanced nutrition. In fact, regular exercise can improve insulin resistance, reduce feelings of stress, help you better manage negative emotions, reduce chronic disease risk, and lower glucose levels [1, 2, 3, 4].
But if you’re starting off your exercise journey — or just looking to change up your routine — the internet can be a confusing place. Should you exercise more or less? Is running bad or good? Can you work out enough to overcome a poor diet?
Here, we’re debunking common exercise myths as they relate to heart health and teaching you how to cut through the noise and do the most efficient, effective workouts for your health.
Let’s be clear: any exercise is better than no exercise at all, but is there a type that’s best for heart health?
You’ll often hear people saying aerobic exercise, or what’s often called “cardio” (like jogging, swimming, or biking) is best for your heart health. And while it’s true that aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and circulatory system, can lower your resting heart rate, and is linked to reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, it’s not the best exercise for heart health [5, 6].
Studies show that a combination of strength and cardio training is better than cardio or strength on their own.
Strength and cardio together are more meaningful for reducing fat around the heart and improving markers of cardiac health like the amount of lean body mass, increased body strength, and decreased blood pressure [7, 8].
Instead of pounding the pavement day in and day out or hogging the bench press, try doing 1-2 days a week of 30 minutes of strength training and 2-3 days a week of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.
Aerobic training can be whatever you like, just make sure it gets your heart rate up, and you can continue at a steady state. With strength training, try to do exercises that recruit large muscle groups, like squats, lunges, overhead presses, situps, and rows.
You’ve probably heard the term “no days off” when it comes to the gym, but it’s not advice you need to follow. The most benefits in heart health and decreasing mortality come from starting to work out moderately after being mainly sedentary .
One study compared 8 weeks of three different training styles: HIIT, steady-state training, and moderate interval training. At the end of the trial, all groups saw a significant increase in VO2 max (how well your body utilizes oxygen during exercise, a higher level of which indicates better cardiovascular endurance) and a significant increase in peak and average power .
This means that in untrained people, all types of exercise were equally effective at improving heart health and endurance, and they didn’t have to work out intensely every day to see meaningful results. If you're a well-trained athlete, you can mix up exercise intensity as you see fit.
One study showed that when trained athletes increased low-intensity training and another group increased high-intensity training, both saw improvement in fitness, though neither was better than another . That is to say — doing what feels good for your body, resting as needed, and increasing training volume can help improve performance, even if the workouts aren’t harder.
Do exercise you like and can stick to! Don’t force yourself to do HIIT sprints or long-distance cycling (or whatever it may be) if that’s not your thing. A recent study showed that doing 5-10 hours a week of moderate physical activity, 2.5-5 hours a week of vigorous physical activity, or some combination of the two is the best way to reduce mortality in the long term .
As it turns out, research shows you really can’t outrun a bad diet. A prospective study looked at diet quality and physical activity’s effect on the development of cardiovascular disease and found that those with the highest diet quality and higher levels of physical activity had the greatest reduction of risk for cardiovascular disease . Said another way, even groups with high exercise levels and low diet quality still were at a higher risk of heart disease than groups with a healthy diet that were getting enough exercise.
Work on improving your physical and dietary fitness. Get your steps in, do movement you enjoy regularly, focus on increasing your fiber intake, reducing added sugar, and aim to balance each meal between lean protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrates.
There's been some speculation as to whether or not too much running is bad for your heart. One study showed that excessive running might cause the heart walls to thicken due to increased muscle, ultimately increasing the risk of forming scar tissue, ineffective movement of blood through the heart, or irregular heartbeat .
Certainly alarming — however, this was a small study conducted in men running over 40 miles a week, which breaks down to just under 7 miles a day of running. Most people are not meeting the minimum recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, let alone running over 40 miles.
That said, another group of studies found that while distance runners did, in fact, have more plaque buildup in their arteries, the type of plaque was a healthy kind (sort of like good and bad cholesterol).
On the other hand, inactive people had more of a mixed plaque composition and more fatty tissue buildup, which can more easily break away from artery walls and cause a blockage in a vessel — which can be life-threatening or lead to death [14, 15].
In other words, inactive people are at a much higher risk of heart disease or heart attack than runners of any kind.
You should worry more about what inactivity is doing to your health than what too much activity might cause. If you love to run — even more than 40 miles per week — that’s great, and you should feel confident that exercising is going to make your heart healthier. If you’re trying to get started running, that’s great too! Some beginner tips include running for time rather than distance (ie, run for 30 minutes rather than 3 miles) and alternating between running and walking until you can run an extended distance without stopping.
Exercise is crucial to heart health, and any type of movement (even just a few minutes) is better than no movement at all . Here are a few key tips to make your exercise routine heart-healthy, effective, and enjoyable: