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Prescription for exercise: The right dose for heart health benefits

Exercise has extraordinary health benefits. It decreases stress, reduces blood pressure, lowers bad cholesterol, decreases the risk of diabetes and heart disease, improves the health of blood vessels and keeps our weight in check, among other benefits.

"How important is exercise? It’s as important as taking your medication," says Debbie Childerhose, registered physiotherapist and program co-ordinator, Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative at Women’s College Hospital (WCH). "I tell my patients: if you stop exercising, it is similar to stopping to take your medicine."  

"Exercise has clear cardiovascular health benefits, and can be as beneficial as medication for reducing recurrence of a heart attack," says Childerhose. "Your heart is a muscle – and you need to move your muscles to keep them healthy."

The right "dose" of exercise for prevention of heart disease: The FITT principle

Just as you need the right dose of medication to help your medical condition, the same concept applies to exercise to get health benefits. For adults, the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise per week. To create your exercise plan, Childerhose recommends applying the FITT principle, which stands for frequency, intensity, time and type.

  • Frequency
    "We take our medicine daily, so we should be exercising daily," says Childerhose. "It’s best to try not to be sedentary for more than two days in a row.  If you’re just starting out, aim for three to five days of activity per week and build from there."

    "On a daily basis, we shouldn’t be sitting for more than two hours at a time," Childerhose says. "Benefits to our body have been shown if we move or change positions every 30 minutes. The body responds very well when you do a little bit every day, so try to increase movement in daily activities every day, throughout your day."
  • Intensity
    For cardiovascular benefits, your exercise should be performed at moderate to vigorous intensity. "Moderate intensity means having a noticeable increase in breathing rate. It’s when we can still talk, but not gasp," says Childerhose "Similarly, if you’re walking with a friend and you have the energy to sing, that’s too light of intensity."

    "Your body temperature might feel a bit warm, you might feel a bit of fatigue in your muscles, you might start to sweat and get more colour in your face."
  • Time
    A minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous cardiovascular exercise in a week is recommended. This can be broken down to 5 days with 30 minutes of exercise, 7 days with 20 min, or even in one day, accumulation of activity in 10 min bouts. If you’re new to exercise, Childerhose recommends breaking it down to shorter chunks of time to make it more manageable.
  • Type
    Full body aerobic exercise is best. "Walking, cycling, swimming, using machines like stationary bikes, rowing machine or elliptical – those are all exercises that will exercise your heart," says Childerhose.

    "We recommend interval training, and mixing up activities to reduce boredom – for example, treadmill for 10 min, then elliptical machine for 10 min, or another machine," says Childerhose.

In addition, Childerhose recommends adding muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups.

Before starting any new physical activity, speak with your healthcare provider to discuss what is right for you.

Read more about being more active and getting fitter: starting from scratch.


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Jan. 17, 2019

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  • Women's College Hospital