Those of us who went to public schools in the ’80s and ’90s grew up on American Heart Association-sponsored Hoops for Heart and jump rope-a-thons. These events ingrained in us one important lesson: that getting active could strengthen our hearts.
Of course, heart health isn’t as simple as just jumping around. There are many things that play into our heart health, like family history and socioeconomic factors; heck, even your zip code can have a say in your long-term heart health.
Still, one recommendation cardiologists continually return to time and again is to get more exercise. When people hear this, they sometimes launch into what they think is a great routine of fitness for heart health, only to get injured, discouraged, or give up altogether.
Here are four of the most common mistakes that cardiologists George Fernaine, MD, MBA, section chief of cardiology at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn, and Sean Heffron, MD, a preventive cardiologist in the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone Health, see people make, and what you should do instead.
Mistakes to avoid when practicing fitness for heart health
Mistake 1: Doing too much too soon
“Most people start too heavy and hard, but it is better to start slowly and work your way up,” says Dr. Fernaine. His recommendation is to begin with just 10 minutes a day, working your way up to 150 minutes per week. (But be sure to get your physician’s okay first if you have any health concerns.)
“When you try to make a big change all of a sudden, it tends to not be sustainable. Gradual implementation of any changes in lifestyle tends to work best,” says Dr. Heffron. He points out that adding even 10 minutes of exercise a day can be hard, intimidating, and difficult to stick to.
Listen to your body (and mind), and start with small, manageable bites. “The older we are, the more likely we are to potentially have negative side effects from exercise,” says Dr. Heffron. Those can be anything from minor aches and pains to injuries like sprains—and injuries are more likely when you overuse something or try to rapidly ramp up, he adds.
Most of all, don’t try to push through any adverse symptoms, particularly any pain in your chest, dizziness, or difficulty breathing during exercise. “Those are all things to suggest there might be something going on in your cardiovascular system that you should talk to your doctor [about],” says Dr. Heffron.
Mistake 2: Not stretching or warming up
Dr. Fernaine stresses the importance of stretching both before and after exercising in order to avoid injuries. Although it might seem like a waste of time, those few minutes that you take to warm up and stretch for a workout can help to protect your body.
“Stretching can be used in so many ways and can even help reduce the risk of injury from pattern overuse, help correct muscular imbalance, and even help repair joint dysfunction,” lululemon Studio trainer Xtina Jensen previously told Well+Good.
Mistake 3: Making exercise a chore
“People often choose exercises they don’t particularly enjoy,” says Dr. Fernaine. “If you were never a runner, don’t start with that.”
You don’t need to sign up for the next half marathon just because you think it will be good for your heart. Instead, take stock of what you actually like to do. Maybe you want to join a local co-ed soccer team, or start a weekly hiking habit. Or maybe you need some external motivation to make the task more enjoyable: “Distractions like listening to music as you exercise can help pass the time,” says Dr. Fernaine.
Mistake 4: Seeing fitness as a separate section of your life
It’s cliché, but taking the stairs rather than the elevator is a way to work some more exercise into your day. Implementing small bits of movement here and there can help you reach your fitness goals.
“The best thing to do daily is to be as active as you can, whenever you can. I encourage people to walk whenever they can, stand whenever they can, take the stairs whenever they can because you don’t need to be exercising or active 45 minutes to an hour at a time at the gym to derive benefit,” says Dr. Heffron.
Seeing fitness for heart health as a separate entity from your regular life keeps you from noticing those small windows that would allow you to get a little bit more movement in, whether that’s walking the dog or having a dance party in your kitchen. “Going from [nothing] to anything is very beneficial to your heart health,” says Dr. Heffron, “and that should hopefully be something that you find really enjoyable.”