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You know you should exercise to lower your risk for heart disease, but you’re already crunched for time. Which exercise should you choose and how can you get the best benefits out of it? Start by checking in with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to embark on an exercise program and then consider these top performers.
1. Walking is easy, convenient, and it is really effective.
In one large study, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that walking half an hour a day cut the overall risk of heart disease by 18 percent. In a study of the benefits of walking for people with diabetes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that just two hours of walking per week can reduce the risk of death from heart disease by 34 percent.
2. Running can be even more effective than walking if you can do it safely.
In the Harvard study, people who ran at least one hour per week cut their risks of heart disease by 42 percent. High intensity aerobic exercise, such as running, has been associated with improvements in a wide range of cardiovascular risk factors, including physical fitness, increased HDL (the good cholesterol), decreased blood pressure and decreased inflammation, says Dr. Frank Hu from the Harvard School of Public Health.
3. Yoga may help reduce the risk of heart disease by decreasing cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure, and by reducing stress and anxiety.
In one study, researchers in India followed people with heart disease. At the end of one year, people who practiced a yoga-based lifestyle, including dietary changes and stress management, found an overall drop in their total cholesterol of 23 percent and a decreased LDL cholesterol of 26 percent, and an improvement of their heart disease overall between 43 and 70 percent.
4. Weight-Training more than 30 minutes per week decreased heart disease risk by 23 percent in the Harvard study.
Weight training can help lower high blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and help control blood sugar levels, says Dr. Hu. By increasing lean muscle tissue and decreasing fat tissue in the body, it may also help boost your metabolism to help you maintain a healthy weight. How much do you need to do? Perhaps not as much as you think.
We usually recommend doing eight to 10 different kinds of weight-lifting exercises, says Barry Franklin, Ph.D., William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
Although three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions per exercise has traditionally been prescribed, research shows that people who do just one set of 8 to 10 repetitions of each exercise experience improvements in muscle strength and endurance similar to improvements experienced by those who do three sets of each exercise.
You get the biggest bang for your buck just by doing the first set, and you can do this entire exercise regimen in just 10 to 12 minutes.
To maximize the benefits of exercise on your heart, mix up what you do.
Strength-train a couple of days a week.
Walk daily as much as possible.
Mix in some jogging, running or uphill walking.
Take a yoga class.
Although studies have shown that these exercises may be especially helpful to your heart, activities such as rowing, biking, swimming and racquet sports, and other activities that get your heart pumping, can be effective, too.
Ultimately, the best exercises are the ones you enjoy and that are convenient for you to do, says Hu. Those are the ones you'll keep doing, and staying active is vital to a healthy heart.
A version of this story originally published in 2013