What can you do to prevent or reverse heart disease? Studies indicate that pairing a healthy diet with regular exercise is the best way not only to prevent heart disease, but to reverse some risk factors.

Is it necessary to pound the miles at the gym every day, or will a simple 30-minute walk do the trick? It’s always best to check with your doctor, but most research shows that any type of exercise that you enjoy and will perform on a regular basis is best.

The heart needs exercise just like any other muscle. Muscles that are utilized regularly become stronger and healthier, whereas muscles that aren’t used weaken and atrophy. When it’s exercised, the heart can pump more blood through the body and continue working at optimal efficiency with little strain. This will likely help it to stay healthy longer. Regular exercise also helps to keep arteries and other blood vessels flexible, ensuring good blood flow and normal blood pressure.

According to the American Heart Association journal Circulation, as many as 250,000 deaths per year in the United States can be attributed to a lack of regular exercise. Living a sedentary, or inactive, lifestyle has consistently been one of the top five risk factors for heart disease. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and obesity. Those with low levels of physical fitness also experience a higher rate of cardiovascular events, like heart attack and death.

According to research from the University of South Carolina, men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary activity had a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who reported less than 11 hours. Inactivity also affects other risk factors for heart disease. For example, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, sedentary people have a 35 percent greater risk of developing high blood pressure than physically active people do.

While a lack of physical activity raises the risk for heart disease, engaging in regular exercise lowers it. Consider the following:

  • According to Elijah Saunders, M.D., head of the hypertension section of the University of Maryland School Medicine’s Division of Cardiology, exercise helps control blood pressure because it stimulates “nitric oxide,” which keeps blood vessels open.
  • A study published in the British Medical Journal found that women who committed to regular brisk walks raised their levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. This regular exercise correlated to an over 50 percent reduction in coronary events.
  • Researchers found that heart attack patients who participated in a formal exercise program experienced a reduced death rate of 20 to 25 percent. Some studies showed an even higher rate of reduction. Several large reviews of past research also conclude that those patients who engage in exercise-based rehabilitation after a heart attack are more likely to live longer.
  • A review of studies over the last half-century show that physical activity reduces the risk of coronary artery disease. The most physically active subjects generally had disease rates 50 percent lower than those who are sedentary.
  • A meta-analysis of 52 exercise training trials with nearly 5,000 subjects showed reductions in triglyceride and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
  • Even those with heart failure were found to benefit from exercise, which increases the heart’s ability to pump blood over time and improves quality of life. In 15 controlled trials, for example, exercise training was found to increase peak cardiac output by over 20 percent.

According to the American Heart Association, exercising 30 minutes a day five days a week will improve your heart health and help reduce your risk of heart disease. They define “physical activity” as anything that makes you move your body and burn calories. This includes: climbing stairs, playing sports, walking, jogging, swimming, biking, and more.

No matter what you do, all studies indicate that some exercise is better than none. According to a review published in Circulation, people who engaged in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity leisure activity per week had a 14 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who reported no exercise. The more you exercise, the lower your risk. The Mayo Clinic suggests that you can even benefit from 10-minute intervals several times a day.

Always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. They can help you find activities that will increase your heart health without the risk of injury.