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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Exercise & the Woman's Heart

Quite simply, exercise can be a lifesaver for women with heart disease. Your heart is a muscle. Like any muscle, it becomes stronger with exercise and pumps blood through the arteries to the body more efficiently. At the same time, exercise also improves the performance of the muscles in the rest of your body. Research shows that the specific benefits of regular exercise include:

  • relieving or decreasing the symptoms of angina
  • lessen fatigue, shortness of breath and perceived exertion during physical activity
  • stopping or reversing the build-up of blockages in the coronary arteries (vessels that supply blood to the heart)
  • reducing cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol
  • helping you lose and maintain a healthy weight, especially when you also make healthy changes to your diet
  • reducing stress and improving your sense of well-being

For women with cardiovascular disease it is necessary to achieve reasonable exercise goals, appropriate pre-participation screening, and explicit advice about your exercise program. Supervised cardiac rehabilitation is considered standard care in the treatment of people with heart disease. Unfortunately, it is estimated that as few as 15 percent of eligible women are referred to these programs.

Exercise Guidelines

When beginning an exercise program:

  • start slowly and increase speed, distance and duration gradually
  • warm up thoroughly before your exercise session to stimulate your blood flow
  • cool down slowly after the session by walking and stretching
  • drink water before and after, especially on a hot day
  • be sure to carry identification and your nitroglycerine with you

How Much Exercise is Enough

  • Frequency: At least 5 exercise sessions a week are necessary to achieve and maintain a desirable level of fitness and cardiovascular benefits (example, boost HDL—good cholesterol levels). Build up to exercising on a daily basis.
  • Intensity: A training effect can be achieved by exercising within your prescribed training heart rate range. In addition, you can use the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale to monitor your response to exercise.
  • Duration/Time: 20 to 45 minutes a day is the recommended duration. This can be accomplished in one sustained bout of exercise or accumulated in multiple, short bouts throughout the day.
  • Type: Include any activity that requires continuous rhythmic muscle contraction of the legs and possibly the arms. Examples are walking, swimming, cycling, and some continuous action games like tennis.

Monitoring Intensity

Proper exercise intensity is one that will result in favorable fitness changes and other cardiovascular benefits. Three tools are available to help you know if the exercise intensity or effort is right for you.

Heart Rate (or pulse): While exercising, be aware of the increase that occurs in your heart and breathing rates. If you are part of a cardiac rehabilitation program, a target heart rate will likely be prescribed for you. Learn to monitor your pulse rate accurately using the following method: Hold your hand with the palm facing up and place the first two fingers of your other hand on the thumb side of your wrist. Alternatively, you can raise your chin slightly and gently place your first two fingers over a blood vessel in your neck. Press gently and count the number of beats you feel for a period of 10 seconds. Multiply the number of beats by six to find your heart rate in beats per minute (e.g., 20 beats in 10 seconds = 120 beats per minute).

Rating of Perceived Exertion: Work out at a level that is between "fairly light" to "somewhat hard." You may be sweating and breathing hard but not gasping for breath.

Talk Test: During exercise, you should be able to carry on a conversation. If you cannot do this, you are probably pushing too hard and should slow your exercise pace.

Warming Up & Cooling Down

Warm Up: The purpose of the warm-up phase is to prepare the body for exercise and for you to exercise safely. A proper warm up should result in a gradual rise in body temperature, raise your heart rate within 20 beats per minute of your prescribed target heart rate, and improve blood flow to the muscles. Perform at least 5 to 10 minutes of light aerobic exercise, such as slow walking. Be aware of your posture. Let your arms swing freely at your sides, taking easy strides, and breathe normally.

Cool Down: This is the period immediately following the conditioning or "dynamic" exercise. The primary purpose of the cool down is to return your heart rate gradually to its pre-exercise level. Spend 5 to 10 minutes performing low-level activity, such as slow walking. You may want to end the cool-down period with stretching activities.

Exercise Warning Signs

Listen to your body! You should stop or avoid exercising if:

  • you have an empty stomach or you have just had a heavy meal
  • you are not feeling well
  • the day is very hot (more than 27° Celsius, 81° Fahrenheit) or very humid (more than 30 percent humidity); take caution on a cool windy day, especially if the temperature is -8° Celsius, 18° Fahrenheit or below
  • you feel lightheaded, breathless, nauseated, or overly tired
  • you develop muscle or joint pains

If you develop discomfort, heaviness, or tightness in your chest or arms, call your doctor right away. If you develop a cold sweat, extreme breathlessness, palpitations or faintness, call your doctor right away.


Center for Women's Cardiovascular Health
1-866 662-8467 (toll free)

Information line
312-MYHEART (694-3278)

Last UpdateNovember 23, 2012

Referrals &

To obtain a referral or schedule
an appointment:

Northwestern Memorial:

Northwestern Lake Forest:
847-LF-HEART (534-3278)

Northwestern Grayslake:
847-LF-HEART (534-3278)

Glenview Outpatient Center:

847-724-GLEN (4536)