Heart failure and exercise: Strengthening your heart and safely combating heart failure

Heart failure is a condition that means your heart can’t pump blood as well as it should. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 6.2 million American adults have heart failure. Heart failure was mentioned on the death certificates of 379,800 people in 2018.

Heart failure can be caused by or made worse by many factors, including weight, smoking, other health conditions and physical activity level. Even though heart failure can limit your ability to move your body, it doesn’t have to stop you completely. In fact, getting regular exercise can help strengthen the heart muscle, protect against future damage and improve your overall health and well-being.

If you have heart failure, you may be afraid to exercise, but you can if you follow some guidelines.

“You can absolutely still be active with heart failure,” said Natalie K. Kendall, APRN, cardiology nurse practitioner with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute. “It’s important to do that safely.”

What does exercise do for your heart?

No doubt you’ve heard that exercise is good for you, but do you know why? There are many reasons moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise is good for you, including:

  • Strengthening the heart muscle so it can pump blood more effectively, which means more oxygen in your blood to be delivered to cells.
  • Widening the blood vessels so more oxygen-filled blood can move through the body and waste can be taken away.
  • Prompting muscles and tissues to demand more oxygen and nutrients, which makes the heart pump harder and faster. (Over time, this builds strength in the muscle so the heart can push more oxygen-rich blood out each time.)
  • Reducing inflammation throughout the body.
  • Lowering blood pressure by widening blood vessels and releasing endorphins, the body’s “feel good” chemicals

Your cardiovascular health affects your entire body, quality of life and well-being. Even small amounts of cardiovascular improvement can allow you to move through your day with less discomfort.

Can heart failure be reversed with exercise?

Heart failure cannot be reversed completely. It can, however, be managed. According to a small study in the journal Circulation, the heart can get stronger and have improved elasticity after a period of regular exercise.

“Since we don’t really have a cure we want to prevent it from happening in the first place, or we want to keep it from getting worse,” Natalie said.

Activities that can strengthen the heart and lungs and build stamina can ease the stress on the heart. Exercise also can help manage weight and blood sugar, which are both linked to heart failure. Physical activity also reduces the likelihood of hospitalization for heart failure, according to the British Heart Foundation.

The experienced team of heart failure specialists at Norton Heart & Vascular Institute can direct your care based on your specific needs. 

What are good exercises if you have heart failure?

As long as your health care team says it’s OK, you can begin with aerobic activity that will increase your heart and breathing rates a little. This could be moving to music or walking. You also could include some light weights or resistance training. Some activities like gardening may include both cardiovascular exercise and weight training. If standing is too tiring, chair-based exercises might be a good start for you.

“There are a few exercises we might not recommend to heart failure patients,” Natalie said. “That would be heavy weightlifting, body weight exercises like planks, and swimming pool-based activities like swimming laps.”

Is it safe to exercise with heart failure?

Never start an exercise program without talking to your health care provider first. They may recommend cardiac rehabilitation, which includes exercise guidance, counseling and education around heart failure and exercise.

Here are some guidelines for getting started with exercise if you have heart failure:

  • Start slowly. Try for five to 10 minutes of slow walking and gradually increase as you are able. Your goal should be about 30 to 45 minutes per day total of exercise.
  • Cool down at the end of the activity by doing the last few minutes more slowly than you had been.
  • Rest when you need to, even if it means skipping an activity because you don’t feel well.
  • Some shortness of breath or fatigue is normal at the beginning of any new exercise program, but stop activity if you have excessive shortness of breath, pain or fainting.

You can exercise with heart failure, and it has many benefits for your body, mind and overall health. Talk to your health care provider about starting an exercise program today.


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