Activity and exercise for patients with heart failure


People with heart failure feel better when they stay active. Years ago, patients were told to rest and give up activities. But, now, research shows that normal activity is safe for most people with heart failure. Being active may help relieve your symptoms. Activity helps your sense of well-being. You should be able to do the things you enjoy. Walking, light weight-lifting, and water exercises will help your muscles stay strong. These activities also will give you more energy.

Types and amount of exercise

Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Also check with your doctor if you want to add or change activities. You may need to do some testing first.

  • Work towards 20-30 minutes of activity per day most days of the week
  • You don’t have to be active for 30 minutes straight
  • It’s okay to be active for three different 10-minute blocks throughout the day

You might be able to participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program. This is an exercise program especially for patients with heart problems. While you exercise, your blood pressure, heart rate, and other physical responses are watched closely. After the program, an exercise routine is provided to you.

Getting started

  • Increase your activity slowly. This is important if you have not been active regularly. This is also the case if you have stopped being active due to illness.
  • Pick a simple activity that you like. Do you like to walk or bike? Work in the garden? Go fishing, bowling, or swimming? Choosing an activity you like helps you stay with it.
  • Walking is always a good choice. It’s easy to find places to walk—indoors or outdoors. Begin by walking five minutes a day. Then, slowly add to the amount of time you walk each day. Also add to the number of days you walk.
  • Be sure to warm-up and cool-down when exercising
  • Never stop exercising all of a sudden and then sit or lie down, or stand still. This can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded. Walk around slowly before you stop.

Exercise tips

  • Use walking shoes that are comfortable and have good support
  • Wait at least one hour after eating to exercise. You may feel sick if you exercise on an empty or full stomach.
  • Avoid outdoor activities when it’s colder than 40 degrees or warmer than 80 degrees
  • Avoid activity when there is a lot of smog or humidity in the air n Exercise at a slow and steady pace
  • Avoid actions that need quick bursts of energy
  • Exercise when you have the most energy. For most people with heart failure, that is in the morning.
  • Think about exercising with a friend or family member. It’s easier to stay with it when you have a partner. It can be an enjoyable social time.
  • Don’t exercise if you feel more short of breath than usual
  • Don’t exercise if you feel very tired
  • Don’t exercise if you are sick or have a fever
  • Don’t exercise if you have chest pain or are making major medicine changes
  • Rest between activities. Don’t wait until you are worn out to rest. Go back and forth between rest time and active time.

How do I know if I'm overdoing it?

You may need to stop exercising if you have any of these signs:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Unable to talk or finish a sentence
  • Shortness of breath that doesn’t get better when you slow down or stop
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Chest pain, tightness, or pressure
  • Pain in your shoulders, arms, neck, or jaw
  • Skipped heart beats or uneven heart rate (pulse)
  • Feeling more tired or weak
  • Major sweating, upset stomach, or vomiting

If you have any of these symptoms while you are active, slow down. If they do not get better, stop the activity. Call 911 if your chest pain or symptoms do not go away.

Last reviewed: 
January 2016

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