Are you one of the 3.4 million Australians who have heart disease? Then it’s important to stay active.

An inactive lifestyle is one of the top risk factors for heart disease. This is one of the most important reasons why we should all exercise throughout life. But what if you already have heart disease? Shouldn’t you be resting and not exercising at all?

While people with heart disease were previously warned to “take it easy” and not stress their hearts too much, the opposite is now true, and cardiac rehabilitation programmes are encouraging exercise to improve cardiac function and to prevent further damage.

Why exercise for your heart?
The experts agree that the benefits of regular exercise, especially aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise, are numerous. It can:

    • Strengthen your heart muscle

    • Strengthen your cardiovascular system

    • Improve circulation

    • Help your body use oxygen better

    • Improve symptoms of congestive heart failure

    • Improve general muscle strength and tone

    • Help you to control your blood sugar if you also have diabetes

And these are just a few of the benefits that will directly affect the functioning of your heart and cardiovascular system.

People who don’t have heart disease also have greater levels of endurance when it comes to exercise. However, if you have existing heart disease, you need to monitor your endurance levels carefully when participating in any form of exercise – overexerting yourself can be dangerous.

Getting started
Before embarking on any exercise programme, it’s always wise to first consult your doctor to help you find a regimen that matches your fitness levels. Ask your doctor questions such as:

    • What type of training is okay for me?

    • How much can I do?

    • How often should I do it?

    • Will it affect my medication?

It’s also a good idea to seek assistance from a fitness instructor who is skilled in working with heart patients. And keep checking in with your cardiologist – especially if you start training harder.

Healthy aerobic activities include walking, swimming, light jogging and cycling. Aim to exercise three to four times a week for at least 30 minutes at a time. And remember to stretch well before and after you've exercised.

Try not to see your new exercise regime as a quick solution or cure to your heart disease – otherwise you run the risk of over-exerting yourself and possibly bringing on cardiac arrest.

The results of exercise are always gradual, so it’s important to pace yourself and, above all else, keep it enjoyable.

Tips for safe exercising
As someone with heart disease, you need to know when to exercise and when to stop. Keep the following in mind:

    • Make sure your exercise routine is well-paced and balanced.

    • Wear comfortable exercise clothing.

    • Rest regularly between sets.

    • Ask your doctor or instructor about the dangers of isometric exercises.

    • Avoid exercising outdoors when it’s too cold, hot or humid.

    • Stay hydrated and drink water even before you feel thirsty.

    • Stay away from extremely hot and cold showers or saunas after exercise.

    • Ask your doctor about the heart rate you should aim for.

    • If you stop exercising due to bad weather or illness, get back gradually when you’re feeling better (or when the weather improves).

    • Focus on your breathing during exercise.

    • If you feel tired or experience heart symptoms (dizziness, chest pain, irregular heart rate, shortness of breath, nausea), stop.

    • Call your doctor if you feel pain or pressure in your chest, neck, jaw or arm, numbness in your arms, gas pains, or shortness of breath.

Image via Thinkstock.

Read more about heart disease and exercise:

>> Nutrients and heart disease

>> How to choose a fitness programme

>> 6 incidental exercise ideas