The Best Exercises to Help Fight Heart Disease


Swimming, racquet sports and aerobics might be the best exercise to help stave off heart disease or stroke, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The study found that all regular exercise can slash the risk of death by 28 percent, but some sports may be better than others.

“There is plenty of evidence showing that physical activity is good for our health,” said Dr. Pekka Oja of the UKK Institute for Health Promotion Research in Finland and lead author of the study. “But (the World Health Organization) recommends generic physical activity, without specifics. We were interested in how sports could contribute to health and how different sport disciplines could benefit health.”

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The study looked at data from 11 annual health surveys from England and Scotland between 1994 and 2008. All 80,306 adults surveyed were an average age of 52.

Each participant was then asked about about what type of exercise and how often they worked out in the last four week. They were then asked to rate the intensity of their workout and if it made them breathless and sweaty.

The activities listed were cycling, swimming, running, soccer, racquet sports including tennis and squash, and aerobics such as gymnastics and dance lessons. Heavy domestic chores were also counted in the various exercises.

The researchers tracked the participants for nine years and kept a close tally of all the deaths that occurred and their causes. There were a total of 8,790 deaths, including 1,909 deaths from heart disease.

Oja and his team found that all sports were effective at combatting death, but three sports in particular — swimming, aerobics and racquets sports — were linked to the biggest decrease in risk of death from both heart disease and other causes.

“Every one of these sports showed a significant association with (decreasing) mortality,” said Oja.

Not only was swimming the most popular sport — nearly 13.4 percent of all the participants reported that they swam — it was also, by far, the best exercise for health. The volunteers in the study who swam reduced their risk of heart disease by 41 percent and lowered their risk of death from all causes by 28 percent.

“I’m not surprised that swimming is the leader,” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch NYU Langone Center for Women’s Health, who was not involved in the study told CNN. “It’s a great aerobic exercise, and you use both your arms and legs.”

Other medical experts such as Dr. Haitham Ahmed, a preventive cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the study, said the most important finding from the study was that all exercise is good.

“If you played any sport, you had a 28 percent risk reduction of dying of any cause,” Ahmed told CNN. “Which means that exercise is good, no matter what you do and no matter which way you look at it.”

Oja agreed and stressed that his team’s research was not meant to rank each exercise.

Oja also said that for future studies, he’d like see a “more reliable number of subjects.” He admitted that one limitation of his study was that there were not enough volunteers in some sports to get a more in-depth comparison.

Danielle Tarasiuk

Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.