Can a Single Aerobic Exercise Session Boost the Health of Your Heart?

Cathe Friedrich leads an aerobic exercise class at her gym in New Jersey.

Aerobic exercise – we know it’s good for our hearts. Ask any cardiologist and they’ll tell you exercise is the ultimate prescription for heart health. While some may argue about what diet is best for a healthy heart, few will deny the heart benefits that exercise offers. Yet, you need to work out consistently for a period of time to enhance the health of your heart, right? Six to eight weeks, at a minimum, and you’ll gradually develop greater endurance as your heart becomes a more efficient pump. However, a new study challenges this idea. According to this research, even a single exercise session has potential cardiovascular benefits. Here’s why.

The Immediate Health Benefits of Exercise

Researchers at the Liverpool John Moore’s University in the U.K, led by Dick Thijssen, a professor of cardiovascular physiology, point out an interesting phenomenon that relates to heart function. When your heart experiences even short-term mild ischemia, inadequate delivery of oxygen to the heart muscle, it adapts in a way that makes it more resistant to damage should it experience a future loss of oxygen and blood flow. Just as a muscle becomes stronger when forced to work against greater resistance than it’s accustomed too, the heart muscle adapts to low oxygen delivery by becoming more resilient as well. Scientists call this phenomenon cardiovascular preconditioning.

What they also found is that cardiac preconditioning takes place soon after beginning a cardiovascular workout, within a few hours. What’s more, a single exercise session seems to be enough for the heart to become more resilient. How’s that for instant results? What researchers believe is the first exercise session offers some cardioprotective benefits while this protection becomes greater with each subsequent exercise session. So, the benefits of exercise begin accruing right away and the protective effects are enhanced by repeated training sessions.

Ongoing Health Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

Cardiac preconditioning can positively impact your heart from the first exercise session, but the benefits only get better. We know that exercise lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease in a number of ways. For one, it helps lower blood pressure. Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease.

The reason? When blood pressure is high, there’s more resistance to blood flow within blood vessels. To overcome this resistance and keep blood and oxygen flowing, the heart enlarges so it can generate more force. But an enlarged heart is also less efficient. Over time, uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to heart failure. Heart failure is simply a heart that is no longer an efficient pump. With heart failure fluid builds up, for example, on the lungs, and makes it harder to breathe.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure also damages the inner wall of arteries, increasing the risk of forming a blood clot that blocks off blood flow to the heart. That’s what happens when a person has a heart attack.

Exercise Has Other Heart Protective Benefits Too

Another risk factor for heart disease is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is linked to inflammation and damage to blood vessels that can, ultimately, lead to a heart attack. Another way aerobic exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease is by boosting insulin sensitivity and by helping to prevent insulin resistance.

We also know that aerobic exercise has beneficial effects on blood lipids. The most consistent improvements are seen with HDL-cholesterol, the form that helps protect against cardiovascular disease. Studies show that aerobic exercise, particularly longer duration exercise like long-distance running, raises HDL-cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL-cholesterol are linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

The impact of aerobic exercise on LDL-cholesterol is less consistent. Some studies show beneficial effects (lowering LDL-cholesterol) while others show little or no lowering of LDL-cholesterol. And, a few actually show an increase. High blood triglycerides are also associated with cardiovascular disease. Most studies show aerobic exercise lowers blood triglyceride levels.

Obesity is another risk factor for heart disease. Aerobic exercise burns calories and when combined with a healthy diet, helps with weight control. Plus, exercise seems to have anti-inflammatory activity and we know that inflammation plays a role in the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease. Anything we can do to lower chronic inflammation bodes well for health.

Finally, exercise helps relieve stress. While a link between stress and cardiovascular disease is not as clear-cut as other factors, stress can, by raising blood pressure, at least indirectly contribute to cardiovascular risk. So, exercise is beneficial here too.

The Benefits Keep Accruing

Exercise may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in a number of ways – and the benefits start as early as the first aerobic session that you do, thanks to cardiac preconditioning. In terms of exercise intensity, high-intensity exercise may have the edge. While any type of movement is beneficial for overall health, for enhancing heart health, picking up the pace is best.

Vigorous exercise even seems to be beneficial for people who already have heart disease. One study carried out by researchers at the University of New England in New South Wales found that heart failure patients who worked out at an intense pace enjoyed a 23% improvement in heart function. That’s significant! Of course, you should check with your physician before exercising, especially high-intensity exercise, if you have heart disease or other health problems.

The Bottom Line

No doubt about it, exercise is good for the health of your heart. What’s surprising is that the benefits are there even after the first sessions and they continue to accrue as long as you continue to work out.  So, take control of your heart health by staying physically active. The benefits are too substantial to ignore!



Medical News Today. “How a single bout of exercise instantly protects the heart”
American Heart Association. “How High Blood Pressure Can Lead to Heart Failure”
Lipids in Health and Disease 2017 16:132
Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 30, 2011, Pages 2144-2148.
Science Daily. “How stress may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke”
American Heart Association. “Stress and Heart Health”
Circulation. 2012;126:1436-1440.
ClevelandClinic.org. “Study: Vigorous Exercise May Help Heart Failure”
Circulation. January 7, 2003, Volume 107, Issue 1.


Related Articles By Cathe:

What Impact Does Exercise Have on Blood Lipids?

5 Tests That Best Predict Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease


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