Physical Activity Helps Prevent a Heart Attack and Stroke

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Topic Overview

Physical activity is one of the best things you can do to help prevent a heart attack and stroke.

Being active is one part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Eating healthy foods, not smoking, and staying at a healthy weight are other ways you can be heart-healthy and help prevent a heart attack or a stroke.

If you are not active, you have a higher risk of heart disease (also called coronary artery disease).

It's never too early or too late to make physical activity part of your life. If you are healthy, it can help you keep your heart as healthy as possible. If you have had a heart attack or stroke, being active is very important to help prevent another one.

Being active is good for the heart

Being active helps keep your heart and blood vessels healthy in many ways. It can:

  • Raise "good" (HDL) cholesterol levels.
  • Help you lose weight or stay at a healthy weight.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Control blood sugar.

Regular activity might also help your heart if you do have a heart attack. It may increase the number of smaller blood vessels that connect different coronary arteries. These are called collateral blood vessels. If one of the major coronary arteries is suddenly blocked, these collateral blood vessels serve as an alternate route to supply blood to the portion of the heart muscle that is threatened by a heart attack.

Activity has other benefits

Being active does more than just keep your heart healthy. It keeps your body and mind healthy too.

The added benefits of regular exercise include:

  • Mental well-being and stress relief.
  • Increased flexibility, if stretching is done afterwards.
  • Increased bone strength, if the exercise includes weight-bearing exercises, such as jogging or lifting weights.

Make sure your heart is ready for you to move more

Talk to your doctor before you start being active. This is very important if you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease; you haven't been active for a long time; or you have other heart, lung, or metabolic diseases, such as diabetes.

Your doctor can help you choose activities that will help your heart and are safe for you.

Many activities are heart-healthy

Being more active doesn't have to be hard. Any activity that raises your heart rate can help your heart. Do something you enjoy, such as walking, cycling, swimming, or dancing.

To get and stay healthy, do activity at a level that is right for you—moderate or vigorous.footnote 1 Try to do:

  • Moderate activity for at least 2½ hours a week. One way to do this is to be active 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. Moderate activity means things like brisk walking, brisk cycling, or ballroom dancing. But any activities—including daily chores—that raise your heart rate can be included. You notice your heart beating faster with this kind of activity.
  • Vigorous activity for at least 1¼ hours a week. One way to do this is to be active 25 minutes a day, at least 3 days a week. Vigorous activity means things like jogging, fast cycling, or cross-country skiing. You breathe rapidly and your heart beats much faster with this kind of activity.

To lower your risk, be active for longer than 10 minutes at a time. Try to do aerobic activity for an average of 40 minutes. Try to do this at least 3 or 4 times a week.footnote 2 Aerobic exercise (brisk walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling) is best.

Ask for help to make healthy lifestyle changes

Tell your doctor if you are having trouble making activity part of your daily life. Your doctor might refer you to a counselor who specializes in helping people make lifestyle changes.

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  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online:
  2. Eckel RH, et al. (2013). 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation. Accessed December 5, 2013.

Other Works Consulted

  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2014). Healthy diet and physical activity: Counseling adults with high risk of CVD. Accessed January 2, 2015.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerRobert A. Kloner, MD, PhD - Cardiology
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology

Current as ofMay 14, 2015