The result? More oxygenated blood circulates throughout your entire body, Dr. Weinberg says. This helps support everything from your brain health to your immune function, in addition to your heart, she adds.
These benefits hold true for people who have never had a heart issue and for those with a diagnosis. But it’s important to emphasize the latter: Exercise plays a protective role even if you already have a heart condition. It can lower your resting heart rate, improve how your blood vessels respond to physical activity, and even reduce inflammation in them, all of which can help slow the progression of cardiovascular disease and prevent its recurrence.2
Basically, if you have a heart condition, “you’re not playing it safe by resting all the time,” Dr. Weinberg says. You might have to take more precautions when you want to get active than someone without heart disease, but “the main message here is that it’s worth the effort,” she says.
So what’s the safest way to do cardio if you have a heart condition?
Before you lace up your jogging shoes or dig your bike out of the garage, the first thing you should do is check in with your doctor if you want to start a new exercise program, get back to a previous routine, or ramp up your workouts, Sirish Vullaganti, MD, the director of heart failure at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, tells SELF.
Depending on your symptoms, they may want to perform a cardiac stress test—for which you’ll simply walk or run on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike—to monitor your heart to see how it responds to changing intensity or increases in workload. This can yield important info, such as a target heart rate range that can help determine what level of exercise is safe for you, Dr. Vullaganti says. It’ll also help your doctor learn how well your heart is pumping blood and if it’s receiving enough of it while your muscles are working.
Once you’re cleared to begin exercise, then you can decide what you want to do. While the term “cardio” tends to conjure up images of intense workouts—a tough HIIT class, going full throttle on the elliptical, or a spin session that’s all hills and sprints—it actually encompasses all kinds of aerobic activity. Cardio refers to any repetitive movement by the big muscles in your body (like your arms and legs) that gets your heart pumping. This could include bootcamps that leave you drenched in sweat (again, if your doctor says you’re in the clear), but it doesn’t need to: Walking, easy cycling, or rowing all count too.