Physical Activity for People with Heart Failure

Staying active should be a part of your care plan to manage your heart failure. It can help you ease health problems, lose weight, and boost your quality of life and sense of well-being.

Here is how to get started.

Get the Okay from Your Doctor

Talk to your doctor before you start working out. Your doctor may have you do an exercise test first. It will find out how your heart works when under stress. This will let you know whether it is safe for you to workout.

Some people are afraid to work out even after their doctor has said it is safe for them to do so. It is normal to be worried after finding out about heart trouble. But the risk of a heart attack is greater for people who are not active than for those who are. Share any concerns you may have with your doctor.

A cardiac rehab program can also help you make a workout program that is right for both you and your heart.

Aim for 30 Minutes a Day

Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity per day on most days of the week. Start slowly and work towards this goal over time. You can break the time up in smaller bouts of activity. For example, you can do three 10-minute sessions over the course of the day. Work at the level that is best for you.

This type of activity should make your heart rate increase while you are doing it. Over time this makes your body and heart stronger. Look for options that are easily available. Examples include walking, dancing, biking, bowling, swimming, and hiking. Choose something you enjoy and you will be more likely to stick with it.

Add strength exercises at least 2 days a week. Body weight exercises, elastic bands, and weights can all be tried. It can help to build lean muscle and strengthen bones. Strong muscles mean you spend less energy doing everyday tasks.

Warm Up and Cool Down

It is important to get your body and heart ready to workout. Start with a light activity that uses large muscle groups. It may be the same activity as your workout but at a lower intensity. Examples include:

  • Use a cardio machine at low resistance for warm up. Then increase speed or resistance for workout.
  • Walk before swimming laps.

Gentle stretches can also help before your workout. Move major joints through the full range of motion. Warm up for at least 5 to 15 minutes.

It is equally important to cool down after your workout. Stopping quickly can make you feel lightheaded. Slowly lower the intensity of your workout over the last 5 to 10 minutes of your workout.

Watch for Signs of Overexertion

You may be doing too much if you have any of these signs:

  • Breathing problems that make it hard for you to talk
  • Shortness of breath that does not get better when you stop what you are doing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Chest pain or pain in your arms, shoulders, neck, or jaw
  • Tiredness that does not feel normal
  • Sweating more than usual
  • Nausea and vomiting

If you have any of these signs, then you should slow down. If your symptoms do not get better, then stop what you are doing. If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.


American Heart Association
Heart Failure Association of America


Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada


Activity and exercise for patients with heart failure. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics website. Available at: Updated January 2016. Accessed May 7, 2019.
Acute heart failure. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated February 20, 2019. Accessed April 24, 2019.
Heart failure and activity. American Association of Heart Failure Nurses website. Available at: Accessed May 7, 2019.
Heart failure: rehabilitation. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at: Updated November 9, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.
Module 5: Exercise and activity with heart failure. Heart Failure Society of America website. Available at: Accessed May 7, 2019.
Last reviewed May 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Peter Oettgen, MD
Last Updated: 10/16/2019

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