Dossier: Healthy heart

Every heart loves exercise

Many factors influence heart health, but cardiologists agree that sport and exercise are equally good for healthy and sick hearts. As is so often the case, it’s all about doing the right amount.

Text: Clau Isenring

If you get enough exercise you can prevent damage that could pose a risk to your heart health. “Obesity, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol are all major risk factors for coronary heart diseases such as clogging of the coronary arteries and heart attacks,” explains cardiologist Christophe Wyss at Heart Clinic Hirslanden. All four risk factors can be reduced through exercise, a healthy diet and not smoking.

“For instance, you can take the stairs instead of the lift or get off the bus one stop earlier.”
Christoph Wyss

How much is enough?

But how frequently and intensely should you exercise if you’re not a fitness freak or super sporty? To reduce the risk to the cardiovascular system and maintain your heart health, the European Society of Cardiology recommends 150 minutes of moderate training or 75 minutes of intensive training per week. Examples of moderate activities include dancing, fast walking, vacuuming, mowing the lawn and golf. Intensive activities include jogging, cycling, swimming lengths or playing a singles game of tennis. It may not sound much, but even this amount of exercise soon becomes a real challenge on a daily basis. “Many people don’t find the time to do 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise five days a week,” says Wyss. He therefore recommends that people who don’t like doing sport should try to incorporate as much exercise into their daily routine as possible. For instance, you can take the stairs instead of the lift or get off the bus one stop earlier.

Pace yourself

If at the age of 50 you suddenly decide to sign up for the New York Marathon because you’ve not done enough exercise in the last ten years, you could be putting yourself at risk. “It’s dangerous to do too much too soon if your body isn’t used to it,” explains Wyss. It’s certainly not only overweight smokers of a certain age who suffer heart attacks. Demanding physical activity can trigger a heart attack even in well-trained athletes, for example if they have a congenital heart defect or a disease of the heart muscles that has gone undiagnosed. “Some 40% of heart attacks are down to a genetic predisposition,” says Wyss. And today – despite intensive research – cardiologists still know relatively little about the genetic causes.

Personal risk profile

A cardiovascular examination can tell you whether you’re at risk of suffering a heart attack. The cardiologist compares your blood pressure, cholesterol profile, family history, smoking status and other factors with figures in a comprehensive database to determine your statistical 10-year risk profile. “These profiles are statistical probabilities and are not set in stone,” adds Wyss, “but they can be useful for men over 40 and women over 50.”

“Exercise reduces the risk of a relapse, shortens the recovery period and boosts your overall health, [...]”
Christophe Wyss

Exercise after a heart attack?

Although in the past doctors automatically prescribed rest and relaxation for patients after a heart attack, we now know that you don’t have to stop exercising after you’ve had one. In fact, quite the opposite is true: “Exercise reduces the risk of a relapse, shortens the recovery period and boosts your overall health,” says Wyss. However, you should consult your doctor before doing exercise, because the type and severity of the heart attack or heart condition determines how intensively you should train. Swiss heart groups (for a list of groups, see have also proven beneficial for people who’ve suffered a heart attack. And the courses aren’t only for people who’ve already had a heart attack. Wyss recommends that anyone with a high risk profile should give the training a try as an effective means of prevention.

Dr Christophe Wyss, 43, is an FMH specialist in cardiology and Head of Acute Cardiology at the Hirslanden Heart Clinic in Zurich. He specialises in invasive cardiology (heart catheters and stents) and is an expert in diving medicine.