When it comes to taking care of your heart, nothing beats regular exercise. Plenty of medical professionals consider it a wonder drug of sorts.

But how physically active should we be? At minimum, strive for half an hour of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every day, the Department of Health and Human Services advises. That can include fast walking and other brisk forms of movement.

But there’s another form you should not neglect: Anaerobic exercise. That’s muscle-strengthening activities such as weightlifting and pushups, and you should do them at least twice a week.

At Novant Health, we provide some of the nation's best individualized heart and vascular care, conveniently located and focused on you.

Start here

Heart disease is the leading killer in the U.S., representing one in every five deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s why it’s important to discuss heart concerns with your primary care physician, who may refer you to a general cardiologist for testing. These visits involve conversations about weight maintenance and its connection to physical activity and strengthening vascular health.

Dr. Tommy Causey

“I spend a lot of time trying to encourage people to do anything, because any activity is better than doing nothing,” said Dr. Tommy Causey of Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute - High Point. “Unfortunately many of us don’t get much physical activity because our habits or work require us to be sedentary. That means your whole body is going to be weaker, and there can be some heart effects.”

Consistent physical exercise is essential to living longer, Causey said. And it starts with getting the heart pumping faster.

What are the key differences between aerobic and anaerobic exercise?

With aerobic exercise, we’re talking about anything that gets your heart rate up and keeps it up for a period of time. Some people call it cardio: the treadmill, the elliptical, bicycling, walking. Aerobic exercise makes the heart beat faster and harder for a significant period of time. We think that extended exercise is most helpful for the heart.

Anaerobic exercise is more of an intense push for a shorter period of time and, in isolation, may not be quite as beneficial as aerobic. An exception would be a weight workout with more repetitions and less weight, where the person is continuously moving and taking minimal breaks. This can be as much of an aerobic workout as walking or running. There are also other exercises, such as cross-country skiing or rowing, that can be a combination of strength training and aerobics.

We try to encourage people, even if working out with weights is your focus, to include some aerobic exercise. When you go to the gym, instead of just working out with weights the whole time, get on the treadmill or the elliptical machine for 20 minutes or more.

If you’re experiencing mild fatigue, it’s OK to keep exercising. But exhaustion means you’re overdoing it. Over time, try to increase the intensity or the length of the exercise as tolerated. I am more concerned with symptoms of fatigue or shortness of breath, and less concerned with the absolute heart rate.