Workout tips to maintain a healthy heart

Physical Health

Workout tips to maintain a healthy heart

Published July 2023 | 5 min read
Expert contributor Professor Jason Kovacic, a cardiologist and executive director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute
Words by Lucy E Cousins

It’s the consistency of your workout routine that helps keeps your heart healthy, not how many kilometres you can run, says a leading cardiologist.

Your heart is the engine room in your body and keeping it strong with a regular workout routine is essential for good health.

On an average day, 118 Australians die from cardiovascular disease. That’s about one person every 12 minutes. A further 1.2 million Australians report that they have one or more conditions related to heart, stroke or vascular disease.

By quitting smoking, eating a nutritious diet and doing the right kind of exercise, increasing your heart health can be relatively simple for most people, says Professor Jason Kovacic, a cardiologist and executive director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

“There’s a big problem in Australia and around the world with people not getting enough exercise,” he says. “And my approach is to make it really simple. I tell almost all my patients to choose exercise that they like, which they can fit into their lives, and which they can sustain.”

But why is exercise so important for our heart health? Well, decades of research has shown regular exercise has benefits for your heart. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that regular exercise can reduce our risk of heart disease-related death by up to 23% by reducing high blood pressure and lowering blood cholesterol levels. Exercise also helps to reduce stress hormones and reduce anxiety, both of which affect our heart health.

But is all exercise equal when it comes to keeping your heart in great shape? We asked the expert.

Workout tips to help maintain a healthy heart

Not all exercise is created equal, says Prof Kovacic. In order to ensure the health of your heart, he recommends aerobic training, which Fitness Australia describes as “any rhythmic activity that increases the body’s need for oxygen by using large muscle groups continuously”. It’s a concept he says some people can misinterpret.

“In general, heart health is about aerobic fitness, so lifting super-heavy weights in a gym just doesn't cut it [for your heart],” he says.

Prof Kovacic believes choosing the right aerobic exercise comes down to three easy rules: keep it simple, enjoy it and make it a consistent workout routine. So, whether you like walking, running, or working out at the gym, make sure your exercise of choice fits in with your lifestyle, and not the other way around.

How much exercise should I be doing?

Australia’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines recommend adults aged 18 to 64 get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, including muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days each week. This equates to two-and-a-half to five hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week, or 1.25 to two-and-a-half hours of vigorous exercise. However, says Prof Kovacic, that can be challenging for most people.

"That boils down to 30 minutes five times a week,” he says. “But we know stuff always happens. It's pouring rain, the kids are sick, you’re working late, any number of things can come up. So, in order to achieve 30 minutes, five days a week, you have to actively aim to do 30 minutes every day.”

That way, you’re planning for success, so if you’re too busy on a couple of days, you’ll still reach your goal. And though some people may struggle to do the full recommended amount of exercise at first, Prof Kovacic’s passionate message is to “just start somewhere” and build up your endurance slowly so you hit the recommended amount.

How to find exercise you enjoy (and will sustain)

While the thought of aerobic exercise might excite some people, it can fill others with dread. However, Prof Kovacic says it’s okay if the gym isn't for you. The key is finding exercise that you like and will look forward to, like walking your dog (but include hill climbs) or going for a run with a friend. 

“You can tie yourself in knots and do crazy workout regimens, but you might only sustain them for a month,” he says. “I take the opposite approach: thinking about your workout through an enjoyment lens and finding something that you can sustain for the rest of your life. That is the cornerstone to success in an exercise program.”

For some people, he says, that may begin with just a walk around the block with their partner, which can be great for fitness, connection and your mental health. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you can look forward to.  

Find the right motivation

To sustain enough motivation to exercise, Prof Kovacic recommends switching up your focus of each workout. Doing the same workout week in and week out can stall your motivation. Instead, add in exercise that works on strength training, like Pilates, or a cardio dance class.

“I think most people can get bored when they exercise, so mix it up,” he explains. “Some days I'll go outside and do running, and other days I will go and sit on an exercise bike and do some light weights. It’s about keeping it interesting.”

And if you’re struggling to find the time to exercise on a regular basis, simple routine changes, like getting up earlier, taking exercise clothes to work, switching off screen time for part of the day and finding a workout buddy, can help. If you’re still struggling, Prof Kovacic has some advice.

“If you don’t find the time to adopt these healthy habits,” he says, “then bad health is going to force you to make time to deal with medical issues. Just get moving!”

Coaching support for chronic conditions

Finding it hard to maintain your heart health? The COACH Program® is a four- to six-month phone-coaching support program provided at no extra cost for eligible members* with heart conditions or diabetes that can help improve your health.

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* To be eligible, members must have a heart-related condition or diabetes and must have had hospital cover that includes heart conditions and vascular system for at least 12 months. Excludes Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic cover and Overseas Visitors Health Cover. Clinical eligibility applies.

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