It’s American Heart Month: What every woman should know about heart health

Middle aged people working out
(Inti St Clair, Getty Images)

As the temperatures rise and the trees green up, the idea of a fresh exercise routine springs to mind for many people.

Any regular physical activity can be a good thing, of course, but the ideal fitness plan strikes a balance between aerobic exercise and strength training, experts say.

"Aerobic exercise should be the foundation of any exercise program," said Barry Franklin, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.

Aerobic exercise includes activities like walking or jogging. Also known as cardio or endurance workouts, aerobic activities increase cardiorespiratory fitness and delay or prevent illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week; plus muscle-strengthening activity, such as resistance training, at least two days per week.

Moderate-intensity physical activity makes the heart beat faster and can make breathing harder than normal, but still allows for one to carry on a conversation.

It's best to increase intensity gradually when starting a new exercise regimen, Franklin said. For instance, someone interested in running will need to start with a walking program and gradually build up speed over two to three months.

Strength training includes activities like lifting weights, doing pushups and stretching with resistance bands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these activities should work all major muscle groups in the body and can be performed on the same or different days as aerobic exercise.

A fitness plan should suit the individual, according to Damon Swift, associate professor of kinesiology at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC.

"While the health implications of a particular exercise program are important, trying to pick activities that you enjoy and can be incorporated into a routine is also a very important factor," he said. For instance, some people may find more motivation by taking a walk with friends, while others may prefer to work out by themselves and lift weights.

Swift's recent research project  found exercise coupled with coaching sessions that boosted participants' non-exercise physical activity by 3,000 steps per day resulted in "greater improvement in fitness compared to aerobic training alone." Participants who had higher step counts also tended to lose more weight and body fat.

The bottom line: Whatever you choose to do, just keep moving.