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Healthy heart exercise

Many people understand that regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and, in particular, can help shed excess weight.  Fewer people understand why regular exercise has these benefits and, particularly, the role of regular exercise is addressing risk factors that can cause heart attacks and strokes. 

General information

Health test mediumOne of the most important potential benefits of regular exercise is prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) i.e. heart attacks and strokes.  New Zealand has one of the worst CVD death rates in the world – a statistic strongly linked to the fact that nine out of 10 adult New Zealanders have high blood cholesterol levels and three out of four have high blood pressure.

Regular exercise can help combat these CVD risks by:

  • Raising "good" blood cholesterol (high density lipoprotein cholesterol) which transports fat away from the artery walls
  • Reducing blood pressure levels.  The higher your blood pressure, the greater the improvement you’re likely to see as a result of regular exercise.
  • Reducing weight by increasing energy expenditure.

Exercise is not only good for a healthy heart. It's good for the whole body – brain, bones, muscle tone.  For example, studies have found regular exercise:

  • Increases blood flow to the brain
  • Boosts "feel good" chemicals called endorphins
  • Helps in memory functioning
  • Reduces risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Burns off calories, thereby reducing weight gain or assisting with weight loss.

As we become older, exercise has also been shown to:

  • Reduce the risk of dementia among older men (by walking three kilometres a day)
  • Maintain muscle strength and help prevent falls
  • Help to build healthy bones and keep them that way over the years (especially through a combination of  running/walking and weight-bearing exercise).

The beneficial effects of exercise will be further enhanced by healthy eating (see healthy heart diet), not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation.

Starting an exercise programme

A good exercise programme starts with the aim of incorporating some moderate intensity physical activity into most days of the week.  Some experts say you should start with a minimum of 30 minutes a day, but any regular daily increase in exercise is worthwhile. Plenty of activities qualify, including walking, housework, shopping or gardening.  Once you’ve started, you can pick up the pace, increasing the intensity of your exercise and, with it, your overall fitness.

But first things first. Start out with moderate exercise. The technical tool for defining exercise intensity is the metabolic equivalent (MET) scale. Put simply, if you are exercising at two METS, you are consuming oxygen at twice the rate you do when resting. Moderate exercise is three to six METS.  For example: 

Pushing a lawnmower (3-6)
Dancing (4-5)
Walking 3-6 km an hour (3-6)
Walking up stairs (4-7)
And a little more strenuous is:
Aerobics (6-9)
Cycling 21 km an hour (8-9)
Jogging (6-8)
Tennis (4-9)
Washing the car (6-7)
Important – if you’re over 60 years of age, relatively unfit, or have existing health problems, talk with your GP before you commence new exercise programmes and get their advice on an appropriate level of activity for you.

Walking for exercise

Walking is a popular way to add exercise to your daily life.  For some people, a brisk early morning walk sets them up for the day, while for others, an evening walk is a good wind down at the end of a busy day. If possible, set aside half an hour and walk most days. The most effective way of getting a regular walk is to incorporate it into something you are doing most days anyway. If you take a bus to work, consider getting off a stop or two before your usual one. If you take the car, maybe you can get a cheaper parking space a bit further away from work plus you’ll get some more exercise – a win / win! 

If finding a regular 30 minute slot in your busy day is difficult, you will still benefit from taking exercise in smaller doses.  So called “snacktivity” has also been shown to be effective is reducing heart attack risks.

  • Take a brisk walk at lunchtime
  • Use the stairs instead of the lift where possible
  • Park further away from the office
  • Get off the bus two stops earlier
  • Persuade colleagues to have a "walking meeting" rather than sitting in an office
  • Walk through the office to see colleagues, rather than sending an email
  • If you pop out for morning coffee, go to the café that's in the next block
  • If you drive the kids to school, park a few blocks away and walk the final distance
  • Walk to the dairy instead of taking the car
  • Start a Sunday stroll ritual.
A pedometer can be a good tool and motivator. The 10,000 steps programme sets the target of 10,000 steps per day. Inactive people rarely manage 3,000 steps a day. By measuring your steps with a pedometer you can measure your progress and set your own targets to walk more.

Whatever your age, walking is a safe, effective and easy exercise option. But it's far from your only choice. Here's more:

  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Aerobics
  • Tennis
  • Golf
  • Skipping
  • Exercise videos or DVDs
  • Dancing.

Exercise through different life stages

Regular exercise is important for all ages.


  • Children need at least 30 minutes of activity every day, either in one block, or as "snacktivity".
  • Join the 'walking school bus' if there is one, or walk with your children to school instead of taking the car (good for you and them)
  • Play with a ball or frisbee in the back yard
  • Trampolines are great fun and encourage exercise
  • Give them the job of walking the dog in return for a little pocket money
  • Enrol them in a sports team or individual activity such as judo, gymnastics or jazz ballet.


  • Teenagers need at least 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week, just like everybody else.
  • Get them into sport (netball, soccer, rugby, hockey, rowing, swimming, running…)
  • Cycling or walking to school
  • Skateboarding or roller-blading
  • Dancing.


  • 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise is the goal.  Split this into 10 minutes "snacktivity" scattered through the day if you need to.
  • For over 40s you should also add some weight training or strength exercises to your regime to help improve bone density and prevent loss of muscle which accompanies ageing.
  • For over 60s, if you don’t want to slow down with age, don’t slow up on the activity.  Aim for 30 minutes of sustained exercise four to six times a week.
  • Wash the car or windows
  • Vacuum the house
  • Walk
  • Play golf
  • Join an exercise class – pilates and yoga build cardiovascular strength without taxing the joints
  • Weight bearing exercise is important. 

Need more inspiration?

  • Check out your local gym or YMCA
  • Consider a bike – for on-road, off-road, or a stationary bike for use at home
  • Check out your local colleges – many offer exercise programmes and night classes
  • Find an exercise buddy – making a commitment to someone else can be a good motivator.

 Last reviewed – August 2013

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