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2021 | HFSA

Physical Activity during COVID-19: Stay Physically and Mentally Healthy at Home

Patient News Heart Failure Awareness 365

Contributed by Guest Authors Amin Yehya, MD, MSc, FACC, FHFSA and Salvatore Carbone, PhD


To help reduce the risk of virus spreading during the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, we are instructed to stay at home and maintain social distancing. Although following these recommendations is clearly beneficial, this led to limiting our overall daily physical activity for multiple reasons. For instance, the gyms are closed and exercising outside freely can be concerning due to the risk of spreading the virus. 

If you have heart failure (HF), physical activity allows to strengthen your heart, vessels and skeletal muscles, improving your symptoms and breathing, ultimately reducing your risk to be admitted to the hospital. Also, physical activity has been associated with improvements in brain/mental health and lower risk for depression. For all these reasons, maintaining adequate level of physical activity remains of utmost importance. 

How Much Physical Activity and What is the Appropriate Intensity?

 What is the level of physical activity that you should try to achieve? The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest that we should all, including if you have heart failure and cleared to exercise by your healthcare provider, perform at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity) that allows to train your heart by beating a little faster than when you are resting or conducting light physical activity. The table below includes examples of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. 

Graphic describing levels of physical activity

Even if you cannot meet the recommended 150 minutes per week because you get tired sooner or you run out of time, do not be frustrated, some daily physical activity is always better than nothing. Avoiding inactivity is, in fact, very important for your health. Even if you complete your daily physical activity in multiple short sessions throughout the day, those individual sessions still count into your weekly amount (e.g., if you conduct 8 minutes of physical activity in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon, your daily amount of physical activity would be 28 minutes to be included in your weekly 150 minutes). 

Types of Physical Activity 

Walking remains one of the easiest ways to meet the physical activity recommendations, as described in the table. Even if you are not able to go to the gym as you were doing before the COVID-19 pandemic, walking outside (or inside if you have a treadmill at home), while maintaining social distancing, is extremely effective. You can also use a pedometer or even your smartphone or smartwatch to count your daily steps and trying to increase your daily steps by 300-400 every week from your baseline number of steps. Although the ultimate goal for daily number of steps would be to achieve 10,000 steps per day, recent evidence suggests that achieving more than 4,000 steps daily as initial goal, and then more than 7,500 steps daily can significantly increase your lifespan compared to achieving less than 3,000 steps daily. Overall, these goals allow to keep your heart and skeletal muscles active and strong.

In addition to walking, which is considered a type of aerobic exercise, you can also add some strengthening form of physical activity at least twice a week at home by using light weights or even bands if available, cans or gallon containers, in addition to stretching to maintain your flexibility and reduce the risk for injuries while performing physical activity. 

Physical Activity is Good for Your Heart and to Live Longer!

In conclusion, engaging in daily physical activity when possible, remains an extremely powerful tool to significantly improve your lifespan and quality of life, especially when associated with: 1) healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, foods rich in healthy fats (i.e., olive oil, canola oil, avocado, fatty fish, unsalted mixed nuts and peanuts, unsalted seeds) and low in sodium, 2) always taking your medications as prescribed by your healthcare providers. Of note, please make sure to discuss with your healthcare provider the best form of exercise that you should engage in, and whether what described below is safe for your condition.

For more information about the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines


Author Information

Salvatore Carbone, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Kinesiology & Health Sciences
College of Humanities & Sciences
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia 
Email: scarbone@vcu.edu
Twitter: @totocarbone
Website: https://khs.vcu.edu/people/faculty-and-instructors/carbone.html

Amin Yehya, MD, MSc, FACC, FHFSA
Advanced Heart Failure, MCS, and Heart Transplant Cardiologist
Sentara Healthcare, Norfolk, Virginia
Assistant Professor of Medicine
Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Virginia
Email: amin.yehya@yahoo.com
Twitter: @AminYehyaMD

Helpful Resources

Explore patient resources in the HFSA Coronavirus Resources Center

Visit the HFSA Patient Hub to explore tools and resources to help patients stay healthy while living with heart failure. 

View Heart Failure Awareness 365 activities to stay up-to-date on tips for healthy living for people living with heart failure.