If you’ve recently had a heart attack or you’re at risk for one, your doctor may recommend starting an exercise program. Making major lifestyle changes can be frustrating and daunting—especially if you’ve developed your current habits over a number of years or decades. With a full plate of work and family responsibilities, you may worry about finding the time to be more active.

Although the road to a more active lifestyle can be challenging, physical activity is a vital component in managing your heart condition and prolonging your life. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), exercising regularly when you have heart disease is important for several reasons. Exercise can help you:

  • strengthen your heart muscle
  • lower your blood pressure and cholesterol
  • control your blood sugar
  • lose and maintain body weight
  • keep your bones strong
  • feel better physically and mentally

When it comes to exercise, a little can go a long way. The secret to successfully starting an exercise routine that will help you maintain your heart health is to ease into it gradually and pace yourself. It’s important to work with your doctor closely when developing an exercise program. This is especially crucial if you’ve recently had a heart attack or heart procedure. Your doctor can help determine which activities are right for you and set limits around how much you can do based on your condition.

Talk to your doctor before you increase your activity level if you have diabetes or have been having chest pain or pressure or shortness of breath. Once you’ve identified the types of activities that are right for you, consider these pointers from NIH and the American Heart Association (AHA) on how to safely begin a more active routine.

AHA Exercise Guidelines

How much is too much and what is not enough? The AHA recommends 30 minutes a day, five days a week of moderate exercise. However, if you haven’t been exercising regularly, you’ll likely need to work your way up to that length of time. You can divide your workouts up into two or three 10 to 15 minute sessions per day for an equally effective workout.

The best type of exercise for your heart is aerobic exercises like walking, jogging, swimming, or biking. Aerobic activity works your heart and lungs for an extended period of time, which allows your heart to utilize oxygen better and improves blood flow. Begin with a simple walking program before trying more vigorous types of activities. According to the AHA, studies show that life expectancy may increase by two hours for each hour spent walking. Additionally, walking has been shown to be the single most effective form of exercise to achieve heart health in as little as 30 minutes per day.

Pace Yourself

Now that you know the amount of exercise to aim for, how should you approach your workouts? NIH recommends beginning any workout with five minutes of “warm-up” activity. Stretching, limbering, and moving around gently will prepare your muscles and your heart for exercise. The goal of exercising should be to gradually raise your fitness level by making your heart work a little harder—but not too hard—each time you exercise.

Once you begin your workout, tune in to how you’re feeling. Don’t wait until you’re exhausted to rest. Take a break before you get too tired. If you feel any heart-related symptoms such as a tightening in your chest or difficulty breathing, stop exercising.

Slowly build up to walking 30 minutes per day, five days per week (or whatever your doctor recommends). At the end of your workout, take five to 10 minutes to “cool down,” doing the same activity at a slower pace.

Mind the Details

There’s more to starting an exercise program than simply walking out the door. The AHA recommends the following tips to make your new routine more enjoyable and increase your chance for success:

  • Dress right for the activity and the weather. Comfortable, weather-resistant clothes and properly fitting athletic shoes are essential to avoiding discomfort and possible injury.
  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Don’t get discouraged if you experience setbacks or stop your routine for a while. Slowly ease back into your routine and work your way up to your previous pace.
  • Mix it up. Do a variety of activities that you enjoy. Once you’ve worked up to a basic level of fitness, your doctor may approve of alternating several activities, such as walking, biking, and swimming.
  • Keep a record of your progress. Log your exercise sessions in a journal or calendar. Note the distance or length of time you spent exercising and how you felt during and after the activity. This will help keep up your motivation by showing you how far you’ve come and will give your doctor an idea of what kinds of workouts are appropriate for you.

You might be surprised by how much you enjoy a more active lifestyle. Not only will you feel better, fitter, and more confident, but you may save money as well. The AHA reports that physically active people can save up to $500 per year in health-related expenses. Take the first step. Talk to your doctor about getting started with an exercise program to improve your quality of life and your heart health.