Heart Failure Exercise Guide
Heart Failure Exercise Guide

About this topic

Heart failure is a problem when the heart cannot pump blood as well as it should. Exercise is often part of the treatment for heart failure.In cases of severe heart failure, exercise might not be safe. Always talk with your doctor about how much activity is right for you.

Your doctor may suggest cardiac rehab. This is a supervised exercise program to teach you safe and healthy ways to manage your heart problem. Some people go to cardiac rehab 3 times each week for 2 or 3 months.
Aerobic exercise uses the large muscles in your body over and over. This kind of exercise makes your heart and lungs stronger. Aerobic exercise includes:

  • Walking
  • Jogging or running
  • Dancing
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Playing sports

Research has shown that exercise is good and safe for most people with heart failure.


  • Before starting with a program, ask your doctor if you are healthy enough to do these exercises. Your doctor may have you work with a trainer or physical therapist to make a safe exercise program to meet your needs.
  • Be sure to start any exercise program slowly and increase your activity level slowly over time.
    • Begin with 5 minutes if that is all you can handle. Add a minute or two each day. Some exercise is always better than nothing.
    • Start with slow walking. Work up to brisk walking, cycling, and other activities.
    • Work up to doing exercise 30 minutes each day 5 to 6 times each week.
    • If 30 minutes of exercise at one time is too much for you, break it up throughout your day. Do 2 sessions that are each 15 minutes long or 3 sessions that are each 10 minutes long.
  • Be sure to warm up and cool down when you exercise. A warm up should be 5 minutes and include some light walking and stretching. The cool down should also be 5 minutes with the same kind of activity.
  • Check your heart rate, also called your pulse, before and after you exercise. Learn to check your pulse on your wrist or neck. Your heart rate should not be more than 20 beats per minute higher exercising than when you are at rest.
    • To find your pulse on your wrist, turn your palm up. Put your second and third fingers from one hand on your wrist just below your thumb.
    • To find your pulse on the neck, place your second and third fingers from one hand at the bottom of your ear and slide them down just past the jaw bone. Use light pressure and feel your pulse.
    • Count the beats for 15 seconds. Multiply that number by 4 to get your pulse rate for 1 minute. Example: You count your heart rate for 15 seconds and get 20. Now multiply 20 by 4 to get 80. Your heart rate is 80 beats per minute. Or simply count your pulse for a minute.

What foods should be limited or avoided?

Most often, when you exercise you should drink lots of fluids. Some people with heart failure have to limit how much fluid they drink. Ask your doctor how much fluid is safe for you to drink based on the kind of exercise you are doing. You may also have to watch how much salt you are eating.

When do I need to call the doctor?

  • Weigh yourself each morning. Empty your bladder before weighing yourself. If you have a weight gain of 2 pounds (1 kg) in a day, let your doctor know. Ask if it is safe to keep exercising
  • Call your doctor right away if you have any of these signs:
    • Chest tightness or pain
    • Sudden shortness of breath
    • Severe sweating
    • Feeling dizzy
    • Pulse is not regular
    • Upset stomach
    • You are not feeling better in 2 to 3 days or you are feeling worse.

Where can I learn more?

American Heart Association

Heart Failure Society of America

NHS Choices