A Little Exercise, a Lot of Benefit

Exercise is good for the heart. We all know that, mostly because of the research on the relationship between exercise and heart disease risk.

But recently, a Swedish study looked at the less examined link between exercise and the odds of developing heart failure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly five million Americans are currently living with heart failure, which occurs when the heart is compromised in a way that negatively impacts its ability to pump blood to the body efficiently. Heart failure symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling in feet, legs, ankles and/or stomach, and difficulty breathing when reclining.

Obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure can all contribute to heart failure. So can smoking and eating a diet high in fat, cholesterol, and sodium. About half of people diagnosed with heart failure die within five years of diagnosis. Heart failure can also lead to serious, life-threatening complications such as stroke.

What the Study Says

Researchers followed more than 39,000 people with healthy hearts for 13 years. In the study, published in the journal Circulation, the most active group of participants—those who exercised moderately every day for at least an hour, or vigorously for half an hour—experienced 46 percent less heart failure than the less active group. Less active individuals still fared better than their sedentary (inactive) counterparts, with an almost 20 percent lower risk of developing heart failure.

No More Excuses: Expert Advice for Getting Active

The findings are another reason to follow the US Surgeon General’s recommendations for physical activity, which urge adults to participate in 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise most days of the week. Moderate activities include: walking briskly (3 to 4 miles per hour), yard work (raking, gardening, etc.), household chores, biking, and swimming.

Luckily, these guidelines are achievable for most people, according to Paul Longenecker, RN, MBA, PhD: "You don’t have to become an elite athlete, but you do need a routine—a way to be active every day. Work a 20-minute walk into your day. Get up half an hour earlier and workout to an exercise show. Keep light weights (3 to 5 pounds) handy and use them while you’re watching TV at night. Adding short bursts of exercise throughout the day is acceptable, too and you may find it works better for you."

Can’t make a commitment? Longenecker, a senior instructor in the Master of Science in Allied Health program at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, recommends adjusting your view: "If you can’t insert a formal exercise routine into your life, think about small ways you can be more active. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Jump rope for two minutes in your basement. Park your car at a distance and walk as much as possible while out doing errands,” he suggests. “If you start looking for ways to incorporate movement into your life, you’ll find opportunity everywhere."

Longenecker recalls his own journey towards a more active lifestyle. "At the age of 22, I found myself carrying around 30 extra pounds along with my recently acquired nursing degree! I felt awful and knew I had to do something," he explains. For him, running was the most convenient option, even though at first he couldn’t make it around the block without stopping. "I bought a pair of sneakers and kept at it—adding distance little by little—and in just three months I was ready to run a six mile race," he recalls. "You can’t go from zero to 80 overnight, but you can set slow, gradual milestones."

The exercise expert is also a fan of making exercise a group project. "When my kids were young and had endless reserves of energy, I’d run while they rode their bikes around the neighborhood. My wife and I jog together. There’s always a way to combine family and exercise!"

Still not convinced? The expert also points to a large body of research that shows terrific health gains can be realized in terms or life span when a person goes from being sedentary to becoming even moderately active. Researchers estimate up to a 40 percent reduction in cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) events is possible just by meeting the government recommendations for activity.

Longenecker concludes: "What’s most significant is moving every day, and anyone can do that!"

Paul Longenecker, RN, MBA, PhD, reviewed this article.


Paul Longenecker, RN, MBA, Ph.D. Phone interview. September 15, 2014. 

Andersen, Kasper, MD, Ph.D. "Dose-Response Relationship of Total and Leisure Time Physical Activity to Risk of Heart Failure." Circulation: Heart Failure 2014; 7:701-708. Published September 2, 2014, doi: 10.116/CIRCHEARTFAILURE.113.001010. Accessed October 2, 2014. 

The American Heart Association. Meyers, Jonathan Ph.D. "Exercise and Cardiovascular Health." Circulation 2003; 107: e2-e5 doi: 10.1161/01.CIR.00000.48890.59383.8D Accessed September 28, 2014. 

National Institutes of Health. "Daily Exercise May Halve Risk of Heart Failure, Study Says." MedlinePlus. Accessed September 20, 2014. 

"Heart Failure Fact Sheet." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed September 30, 2014.