7 Tips for Exercising With Heart Failure

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, is a progressive and chronic condition that reduces the ability of the heart to adequately pump blood. The reduced pumping ability can be caused by conditions like a weakened heart muscle, enlarged heart muscles, arrhythmia, malformation of the heart, or injury to the heart. 

These conditions can, in turn, be caused by factors like chronic high blood pressure, heart disease, atrial fibrillation, high cholesterol, heart attack, congenital heart defects, and heart valve disease.

Heart failure has many different severities, which are broken down into four stages. While you cannot cure heart failure, you can do several things to slow or even halt the progression into more advanced heart failure. 

One of the most impactful steps you can take to slow the progression of heart failure and live a more normal life is to take charge of your cardiovascular health through lifestyle modifications like exercise. Below is a closer look at how you can incorporate physical activity if you have heart failure. 

How Do You Safely Exercise With Heart Failure?

The heart plays a vital role in your body by pumping blood through your circulatory system. Blood needs to circulate constantly in order to provide the tissues of your body with the oxygen they need to function at their best. 

Circulation is particularly important during exercise when muscle cells require extra oxygen and energy to contract. 

In cases of heart failure, the heart has been weakened in a way that makes this process less effective. Thus, exercising with heart failure can be challenging and even dangerous if certain precautions are not taken. 

Below is a closer look at some helpful tips you can utilize to help ensure your exercise is safer for your heart. 

1. Start Slow

Getting a diagnosis of heart failure can be a real wake-up call to start taking your heart health more seriously. However, this doesn’t mean you should jump right in and sign up for a marathon. When you are just starting to implement exercise following a diagnosis of heart failure, it is imperative that you focus on taking it easy and easing into a workout routine. 

You should start off with low-intensity workouts and slowly increase the intensity to help your body adapt and adjust to the physical demands of working out. In the beginning, starting slow may be as simple as adding a short daily walk to your routine. 

If you are consistent, this task may become easier over time, and you may be able to increase your distance. This slow approach can help your heart stay within a healthy heart rate range, which can help keep you safe. 

2. Start With 10 Minutes of Exercise Each Day

The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week, which equates to about 20 minutes each day. While this recommendation exists, it is mainly meant for individuals that do not have cardiac compromise, as is the case with those diagnosed with heart failure. 

When you are first starting, aim to exercise for 10 minutes each day and gradually increase the duration or number of sessions as your body adapts. A typical progression may include doing 10 minutes of aerobic exercises per day for the first week and then increasing that to two 10-minute sessions a day. 

Eventually, this system can help you build aerobic endurance, which can gradually improve your cardiovascular fitness and health. 

3. Avoid Overexertion

Working out with a heart condition can be a balancing act. Exercise can be a great way to help your cardiovascular system adapt and grow, but working out too much or overexerting yourself can be potentially harmful. 

Generally, if you have heart failure, you should stick to low to moderate intensity and be cognizant of how your body is coping. Vital signs like heart rate, respiratory effort, and respiratory rate are some indications of how hard you are pushing your body. 

You don’t want to exercise to the point that these begin to enter dangerous territories. If you’re not sure what a healthy heart rate or respiratory range is for you, talk to your primary care provider or cardiologist.

Always stay well within your limits and don’t try and exceed them without a professional consult from your healthcare provider, cardiologist, or exercise physiologist. 

4. Incorporate Walking as a Main Exercise

Exercise programs can seem daunting to many, especially those who haven’t worked out in a while. Many people think of exercise as something that can only be performed in a well-equipped gym, but walking is a fairly accessible form of aerobic exercise.

Walking, whether it’s on a treadmill, a sidewalk, or a trail, can have profound benefits for the cardiovascular system when performed on a routine basis. Simply walking once a day can be the gentle push your cardiovascular system needs to become more resilient. 

Over time, walking can help support your cardiovascular system, improve cardiovascular endurance, and improve your quality of life. As you progress in your exercises, walking can also be a great warm-up before doing moderate-intensity exercises like cycling and strength training.

5. Stay Aware of Your Environment

Getting some fresh air with your exercise can be great, but it is also important to be aware of your environment and ensure that you exercise as safely as possible. 

When you work out inside, many external factors are controlled for you. Your climate is controlled through your AC, you have access to water to stay hydrated, the terrain is mostly level, and you don’t have to worry about hazards like vehicles. 

If you exercise outside, be aware of the weather conditions and avoid extreme temperatures. Wear weather-appropriate, reflective clothing and footwear, and stay hydrated. Also, ensure that you have a form of communication if you are exercising alone, and let someone you trust know where you are and when you should be coming back. 

Make sure to carry a water bottle with you so you can maintain hydration, and try to time your exercise so that you’re not outside during the hot parts of the day. The weather is generally cooler in the morning and evening, and staying cool can help prevent unnecessary physical strain.

6. Stop Exercise If You Notice Symptoms

As stated previously, exercising with heart failure is a balancing act. Despite your best intentions, you may push your body beyond what it can handle. 

This is why you must understand and listen to the warning signs that your body may give you. If you experience any warning signs or symptoms of cardiac stress, stop exercising immediately. If they persist, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

Some symptoms you should be aware of include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Tachycardia (abnormally fast heart rate)
  • Sudden fatigue

7. Consult Your Doctor Before Starting

Starting an exercise program for heart failure can help slow disease progression, but it also isn’t for everyone. Before you start any exercise routine, you should consult with your care team to discuss if exercise may be beneficial and safe for you. 

Many cardiologists and physicians tend to enroll their patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program if they think exercise may improve their quality of life and reduce the chances of future cardiac events. 

Cardiac rehab is a program that focuses on providing patients with the guidance, tools, and support they need to live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. This is typically accomplished through a combination of health education, nutritional guidance, and tailored monitored exercise routines, as well as providing mental health education. 

Cardiac rehab can be an incredibly valuable tool for those living with heart failure, and Carda Health takes it one step further by offering all of these services from the comfort of your own home. 

Carda Health is a virtual cardiac rehab provider that provides a tailored rehab program to meet patients where they are at. These programs can help support improvements to their level of fitness, mobility, and cardiovascular health. 

The program is entirely online but still offers many of the same benefits of traditional cardiac rehab, like live vitals monitoring and real-time coaching from an exercise physiologist. 

How Can You Avoid Overdoing It When Exercising With Heart Failure?

The balancing act of exercising with heart failure can be conflicting, as you want to improve your heart health, but you also don’t want to cause unnecessary harm. One of the best ways you can avoid overdoing it is to enroll in a monitored cardiac rehab exercise program. 

Monitored exercise utilizes live monitoring equipment that provides real-time vitals monitoring to a trained exercise physiologist. Based on your specific form of chronic heart failure, health history, and vascular health, your physiologist can keep your vitals in a therapeutic range that helps to maximize benefits without compromising your safety. 

If a specific exercise is causing you to overexert yourself, a trained exercise physiologist can recognize this and offer alternative exercises or modifications to bring your heart rate back to a safe level. 

The Bottom Line

The benefits of exercise for those with heart failure are immense. Regular exercise can help to improve blood flow, reduce cardiac risk factors, improve aerobic capacity, and allow those with heart problems to live a more normal life. 

When beginning an exercise routine, remember to start slow and watch for warning signs. With a cardiac rehab program, you can exercise confidently and safely — even with heart failure.


Heart Failure: Common Symptoms, Causes and Treatment | Cleveland Clinic

Atrial Fibrillation and Heart Failure | American Heart Association

Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery | CDC

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