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 the blood through a vast system of blood vessels that is 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.
The role of increased blood flow
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 preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD.
Your heart is a muscle. Just like your bicep, the more you work your heart, the bigger and stronger it gets.
Over time, your heart works more efficiently and can push out a greater volume of blood with every beat..
In addition, exercise also improves blood flow to the heart. It does this by improving the ability of the coronary blood vessels, which are the arteries that supply blood to the 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. Ahmed says. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart and blood vessel disease.
Consistent moderate physical activity has other benefits:
- 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. Ahmed says.
Other tips to help your heart
Dr. Ahmed also has these tips to help keep your blood pressure in check:
- 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.
- 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.
- Limit alcohol —Consuming just two or three drinks in one sitting can elevate your blood pressure.
- Avoid black licorice — Black licorice, which contains glycyrrhizinic acid, can elevate blood pressure, even in those without hypertension.
- 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.