Exercise and the risk of coronary artery disease

Lack of exercise is a risk factor for developing coronary artery disease (CAD).1 Lack of physical activity can indirectly increase the risk of CAD because it also increases the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. Regular physical activity can help reduce your risk of CAD by helping you control cholesterol and blood pressure, regulate blood sugar (important for people with diabetes), and lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

Regular exercise is essential not only for preventing CAD but also for improving your overall heart health. You can use your target heart rate to know how hard to exercise to improve your heart health. Use this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?

It also is possible that regular physical activity increases the number of smaller blood vessels that connect different coronary arteries. If one of the major coronary arteries is suddenly blocked, these collateral blood vessels serve as an alternate route to supply blood to the portion of the heart muscle threatened by a heart attack.

  • Exercise doesn't have to be difficult. Any activity that raises your heart rate can be considered exercise, such as walking, cycling, swimming, gardening, or dancing.
  • Try to do moderate exercise at least 2½ hours a week. One way to do this is to be active 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week.2, 3 Or try to do vigorous activity at least 1¼ hours a week. One way to do this is to be active 25 minutes a day, at least 3 days a week. It's fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week. You can choose to do one or both types of activity. But if you have never exercised, even 5 minutes of walking per day is a good start. Add more as you are able.
  • Talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program if you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease; have been sedentary for a long period of time; or have other heart, lung, or metabolic diseases, such as diabetes.
  • Report any symptoms, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, to your doctor immediately.

Studies on exercise for CAD differ in the specific amount and intensity of exercise. But all studies reinforce that almost any amount of physical activity is beneficial and that the more and harder you exercise, the greater the benefit.


  1. Grundy S, et al. (1999). Assessment of cardiovascular risk by use of multiple-risk-factor assessment equations: A statement for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Circulation, 100(13): 1481–1492.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf.
  3. Haskell WL, et al. (2007). Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116(9): 1081–1093.

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