January 20, 2022

How Making Your Heart Work Harder Makes It Stronger

Unlock the secret of your body’s hardest-working organ

anatomical illustration of a heart against a blue background

Conventional wisdom suggests that if you want something to last longer, you should go easy on it. And most of the time, that’s sage advice. But not when it comes to your body’s hardest-working organ: your heart.

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Each day, your heart beats, on average, 100,000 times, pumping your blood through a vast system of blood vessels that’s more than 60,000 miles long.

But making your heart work even harder — through moderate- to high-intensity physical activity on a consistent basis — can help lower your blood pressure and make your heart stronger, says cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.

Is your heart a muscle?

Your heart is a muscle. Just like your bicep, the more you work your heart, the bigger and stronger it gets.

During moderate- to high-intensity exercise, your muscles and tissues demand more nutrients and oxygen, which means that your heart must work harder and pump faster to meet those needs, says Dr. Cho.

Over time, your heart works more efficiently and can push out a greater volume of blood with every beat.

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In addition, exercise also improves blood flow to your heart. It does this by improving the ability of your coronary blood vessels, which are the arteries that supply blood to your heart, to dilate.

Exercise also helps your other blood vessels’ ability to dilate, which, over time, lowers blood pressure.

“In general, the lower your blood pressure is, the better off you are,” Dr. Cho says. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart and blood vessel disease.

Consistent moderate physical activity has other benefits, too:

  • Muscles and tissue are better able to extract oxygen from your blood, even while you are resting.
  • Sympathetic tone, a nervous system function that activates especially under conditions of stress, goes down.

“As a secondary benefit, consistent exercise can help you lose weight, which means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard since there is less of you to pump blood to,” Dr. Cho says.

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How to make your heart stronger

Dr. Cho shares these additional tips to help keep your blood pressure in check and keep your heart strong:

  1. Avoid sodium. Too much salt increases the volume of your blood, which can make your blood pressure problems worse. Prepare your own foods to help limit your sodium intake, and drink water instead of soda.
  2. Try the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. DASH is a lifelong healthy eating plan that helps you focus on cutting salt from your diet and adding foods rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium.
  3. Limit alcohol. Consuming just two or three drinks in one sitting can elevate your blood pressure.
  4. Avoid black licorice. This may not be a piece of advice you were expecting to read, but black licorice, which contains glycyrrhizinic acid, can elevate blood pressure, even in those without hypertension.
  5. Take a stand. Research shows that sitting for prolonged periods can have a negative effect on your heart, even if you get 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Break up periods of inactivity and get your blood pumping by taking a five-minute walk at least once an hour.

When you combine healthy habits like regular exercise, a balanced diet, the elimination of smoking and drinking and more, your heart will be able to pump at a strong rate.

Taking care of your heart is essential to preventing the development of other diseases like diabetes and lung-related illnesses, too. If you feel your heart isn’t pumping or beating the way it’s supposed to, contact your physician immediately.

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