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How to tell if your workout is making your heart stronger

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Are your workouts challenging your heart as much as you think? Here’s what your heart rate, blood pressure and more can reveal.
Written by Jennifer Thomas
Updated on

A workout class that once left you out of breath is now no problem. You trained for (and aced) that couch-to-5k race. Those bags and bags of groceries you lug around during your weekly haul no longer tax your back. When it comes to exercise, there’s nothing like seeing results to keep you motivated.

But even if you’re setting and meeting workout goals, you still may wonder if all that sweat equity is paying off in the form of a healthier heart.

And that’s important: Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer in America. More and more people are also developing risk factors such as high blood pressure at an earlier age.

Here’s how to give your heart the attention it deserves — and keep tabs on your progress.

(When your heart is on the line, the cost of your medications shouldn’t get in the way of the care you need. Show this free prescription discount card to your pharmacist — you could save up to 80%.)

The best ways to work out your heart

Here’s a truth bomb: The best exercises for your heart are the ones you’ll stick with.

“The most important thing is to choose an activity that you’ll do and find fun,” says Kristin Traskie. She’s the fitness and wellness program coordinator in the Health Promotion Department at Michigan State University. “That increases the likelihood that you’ll remain consistent. Consistency is key.”

Any exercise that helps you maintain a healthy weight or keeps your blood pressure and cholesterol in check is good for your heart. Lots of activities fit into that bucket.

The 2 main types of exercise that boost your heart health are:

Aerobic exercise

Your heart is a muscle. So when you give your heart extra work to do, it gets stronger.

Aerobic exercise (aka cardio) is great for that. It trains your heart to be more resilient. Over time, your heart’s arteries learn to relax, which lowers blood pressure. Your heart also gets better at pumping blood with each beat, so your resting heart rate doesn’t have to be as high.

Federal guidelines recommend that you get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) a week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise (such as running or swimming laps).

If you’re new to exercise, it can take a while to get there. Don’t worry. Take things slowly and work your way up. And don’t forget to pick an exercise you enjoy. Here are more ideas to get you started:

  • Dancing
  • Jumping rope
  • Climbing stairs
  • Rowing
  • Tennis
  • Biking

Strength training

Strength may not raise your heart rate as high or as consistently as being in a Zumba class. But it’s still good for your heart.

That’s because building muscle can help reduce belly fat, raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol. These are all things that can reduce your risk for heart disease, says the American Heart Association (AHA).

Thankfully, building strength doesn’t have to mean slaving away at the gym or throwing around weights in a CrossFit class. “There are many exercises you can do with just your body weight, household items or even gardening and yardwork,” says Cemal Ozemek, PhD. He’s a clinical exercise physiologist and director of cardiac rehabilitation at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Your goal: Do a strength training routine that hits all your major muscle groups twice a week. A sample routine could include calf raises, squats, planks and pushups.

Need more ideas to get started? We put together 30 moves to help you make the most of your at-home workout.

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4 ways to test if your workout is making your heart stronger

With regular exercise, you should start to notice an increase in your aerobic capacity in about 8 to 12 weeks, Traskie says. That means your heart and lungs are better able to shuttle oxygen to your muscles. More oxygen means more energy to help you go farther and faster and lift more.

Use these 4 expert-backed tests to get a beat on your heart’s fitness. Log your numbers in a journal or fitness app. Then check them every 2 or 3 months to track your progress.

Your resting heart rate

How hard your heart works when you’re not exercising is a good sign of how efficient it is.

A healthy resting heart rate for most adults is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, says the AHA. As you get fitter, your heart rate at rest will likely go down. (Pro athletes may have a heart rate as low as 30 to 40 beats per minute.)

To get your heart rate, check your pulse. To find it at your neck: Place your index and middle fingers to the side of your windpipe. To find it at your wrist: Touch 2 fingertips just inside your wrist bone where your hand meets your wrist.

Once you feel your pulse, count the number of beats in 15 seconds and then multiply that number by 4. A wearable fitness tracker or a pulse oximeter can take your pulse, too.

Related reading: 7 ways to manage your chronic disease with a fitness tracker.

Your target heart rate

So you measured your resting heart rate. But do you know what your heart rate should be during your workout?

Turns out, it’s important. Staying in your target training zone will help you get the most out of your efforts — without overdoing it.

While it’s not an exact science, your maximum heart rate is about 220 minus your age. This is generally how high your pulse can get. The closer you are to that maximum number, the harder you’re working.

According to the AHA, a good target heart rate zone during exercise is:

Target heart rate

You may also want to measure your heart rate right after your workout. The more fit you and your heart are, the quicker your heart rate can recover to near-resting levels.

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Your blood pressure

When your heart is stronger, it has an easier time pumping more blood. That puts less force on your arteries, which can lower your blood pressure. That makes resting blood pressure a great indicator of fitness.

You should have your blood pressure checked at every doctor’s visit. But you can also buy an at-home blood pressure monitor or use the one at your local pharmacy.

Normal blood pressure is considered less than 120/80 mm Hg. In general, the more you can lower your blood pressure, the better. Click for the causes and risks of high blood pressure.

Your physical fitness

If you’re ready to test your mettle, try a fitness test.

Gym class-style tests may seem old-fashioned, but they’re actually a great tool to measure fitness. In fact, some are so telling that they’re used by researchers all over the world.

You have plenty of options. But a simple one involves climbing stairs. If you can climb 4 flights of stairs in 1 minute, your heart is in good shape. This is according to researchers from the European Society of Cardiology. As you get fitter, you’ll get faster and the exercise will get easier, Ozemek says.

Another is the Rockport 1-mile walk test. “For this test you are trying to walk 1 mile as fast as you can, which can be done on a treadmill or outside,” explains Traskie. “After completion of the mile walk, you’ll record your heart rate [beats per minute] and mile time. These results can then be entered into a Rockport 1-mile walk calculator to see which classification you fall into based on your age and gender.”

No matter where you’re starting, know that fitness is a journey. Each time you lace up your walking shoes, pick up those dumbbells or head out for some 1-on-1 tennis, you’re doing your heart a whole lot of good. Find the form of movement that fuels your passion, and watch your numbers improve.

Our passion? Helping you save on your prescription medications. Our free mobile app can help you find coupons and the lowest prices at pharmacies in your area.

Additional sources
Federal physical activity guidelines:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
How belly fat raises heart disease risk: American Heart Association
The stair climb test as a measure of fitness: European Society of Cardiology