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Exercise for Healthy Arteries

Contributor: Hicham Skali, MD, MSc
5 minute read
A smiling older woman wearing a teal swimsuit in a pool as she rests her elbows on the edge of the pool. Both of her hands, with a watch on her left hand, are on her red swimming cap that she is wearing while blue goggles sit on her forehead.

It’s well known that exercise is good for your heart. But the benefits of regular exercise literally spread through your entire body via your arteries.

“We have arteries all over our bodies — in our arms and legs, our heart and other major organs, they’re almost everywhere,” says Hicham Skali, MD, MSc, a Mass General Brigham cardiologist. Dr. Skali is the medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Diseases can change the nature and structure of our arteries, affecting their ability to deliver enough blood to the rest of the body.”

But exercise can help you keep your arteries younger and healthier. The healthier your arteries, the lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, heart attacks, hypertension (high blood pressure), and high cholesterol.

“Regular exercise is one of the best ways to maintain artery health. In some cases, exercise is like a very effective super-pill that may lower cholesterol numbers and blood pressure,” Dr. Skali says.

What do arteries do?

Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Veins, on the other hand, are blood vessels that take oxygen-poor blood back to the heart to be reoxygenated. Capillaries are the smallest blood vessels, and they transport blood between your arteries and veins.

Like the rest of the human body, arteries age and lose function over time. They can get stiff and narrow, and plaque (small deposits of fat and waste) can stick to their interior walls. All these effects can reduce blood flow and increase pressure on arterial walls. But regular exercise can keep arteries open and make them more efficient.

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to maintain artery health. In some cases, exercise is like a very effective super-pill that may lower cholesterol numbers and blood pressure.

Hicham Skali, MD, MSc
Mass General Brigham

Get regular exercise to lower blood pressure and maintain vascular health.

Any type of exercise can help maintain arterial health and overall heart health, Dr. Skali says. And an exercise that uses just one body part actually helps all of your arteries everywhere.

Aerobic exercise, often called cardio, is excellent for arterial health. When your heart pumps faster during aerobic exercise, it pushes more blood through the arteries. This keeps the arteries wider and more flexible, reducing blood pressure and making arteries less likely to collect plaque. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, running, dancing, rowing, and swimming.

Strength training, or resistance training, is also important for arterial health. Strength training affects blood pressure by increasing lean muscle mass. More muscle gives your cardiovascular system somewhere to send blood that’s being pumped. This puts less pressure on your arteries. Examples of this type of exercise include weightlifting or bodyweight exercises.

The benefits of regular exercise

Exercise has many positive effects on vascular health:

  • Delivers more oxygenated blood throughout the body to keep tissues and organs healthy
  • Improves metabolism, which helps control blood glucose (blood sugar), burn fats, and maintain or decrease body weight
  • Increases production of nitric oxide, which relaxes the inner muscles of your blood vessels
  • Prompts the body to make more capillaries in your muscles, giving muscles more oxygen and increasing muscle efficiency
  • Increases mitochondria, small structures inside cells that create energy
  • Reduces inflammation throughout the body
  • Widens arteries and makes them more flexible, decreasing resistance and blood pressure

With healthy arteries, you have a lower risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart failure. This lowers the chances of cardiovascular events such as cardiac death, stroke, and heart attack.

Dr. Skali emphasizes that regular exercise isn’t just for those who are looking to prevent heart problems. It can help people whose heart muscle is already damaged. Although exercise can’t clear existing plaque from clogged arteries, it can help prevent further accumulation.

Additional health benefits of exercise

Exercise has many other benefits for your overall health. It can:

  • Boost your energy, mood, and focus
  • Improve your sleep
  • Prevent other diseases like diabetes, dementia, and some cancers
  • Benefit the immune system
  • Reduce stress
  • Strengthen bones

Tips for starting an exercise program

When beginning a new exercise program, talk to your primary care provider (PCP), your cardiologist if you have one, an exercise physiologist, or a physical therapist. They can advise you on any limitations to keep in mind, and help create a customized plan based on your goals.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, per week. If you’re not used to that level of activity, start slow and build up your strength and endurance over time. This can help prevent injury.

Getting into a new routine and starting new habits can be challenging. Try the following:

  • Set a reasonable goal: Having a concrete-but-achievable goal in mind, like running a 5k or walking a certain number of steps per day, can help with motivation.
  • Try different workouts: Prevent boredom by trying different types of exercise, like tennis, group fitness classes, yoga, or weightlifting.
  • Make it easy: Set out your workout clothes, shoes, and water bottle ahead of time can make it easier to establish these new habits.
  • Remember the long-term: You might not see the rewards right away, but try to focus on the long-term rewards of feeling stronger, having more energy, and improving your health.

Learn about Mass General Brigham Heart services

Hicham Skali, MD, MSc