The Effect of Exercise on Vascular Homeostasis


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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The heart is a muscle and, like any muscle, it responds dramatically to exercise. For a healthy young adult, cardiac output (heart rate × stroke volume) increases in the nonathlete from approximately 5.0 liters (5.25 quarts) per minute to a maximum of about 20 liters (21 quarts) per minute. Accompanying this will be an increase in blood pressure from about 120/80 to 185/75. However, well-trained aerobic athletes can increase these values substantially. For these individuals, cardiac output soars from approximately 5.3 liters (5.57 quarts) per minute resting to more than 30 liters (31.5 quarts) per minute during maximal exercise. Along with this increase in cardiac output, blood pressure increases from 120/80 at rest to 200/90 at maximum values.

In addition to improved cardiac function, exercise increases the size and mass of the heart. The average weight of the heart for the nonathlete is about 300 g, whereas in an athlete it will increase to 500 g. This increase in size generally makes the heart stronger and more efficient at pumping blood, increasing both stroke volume and cardiac output.

Tissue perfusion also increases as the body transitions from a resting state to light exercise and eventually to heavy exercise. These changes result in selective vasodilation in the skeletal muscles, heart, lungs, liver, and integument. Simultaneously, vasoconstriction occurs in the vessels leading to the kidneys and most of the digestive and reproductive organs. The flow of blood to the brain remains largely unchanged whether at rest or exercising, since the vessels in the brain largely do not respond to regulatory stimuli, in most cases, because they lack the appropriate receptors.

As vasodilation occurs in selected vessels, resistance drops and more blood rushes into the organs they supply. This blood eventually returns to the venous system. Venous return is further enhanced by both the skeletal muscle and respiratory pumps. As blood returns to the heart more quickly, preload rises and the Frank-Starling principle tells us that contraction of the cardiac muscle in the atria and ventricles will be more forceful. Eventually, even the best-trained athletes will fatigue and must undergo a period of rest following exercise. Cardiac output and distribution of blood then return to normal.

Regular exercise promotes cardiovascular health in a variety of ways. Because an athlete’s heart is larger than a nonathlete’s, stroke volume increases, so the athletic heart can deliver the same amount of blood as the nonathletic heart but with a lower heart rate. This increased efficiency allows the athlete to exercise for longer periods of time before muscles fatigue and places less stress on the heart. Exercise also lowers overall cholesterol levels by removing from the circulation a complex form of cholesterol, triglycerides, and proteins known as low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), which are widely associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Although there is no way to remove deposits of plaque from the walls of arteries other than specialized surgery, exercise does promote the health of vessels by decreasing the rate of plaque formation and reducing blood pressure, so the heart does not have to generate as much force to overcome resistance.

Generally as little as 30 minutes of noncontinuous exercise over the course of each day has beneficial effects and has been shown to lower the rate of heart attack by nearly 50 percent. While it is always advisable to follow a healthy diet, stop smoking, and lose weight, studies have clearly shown that fit, overweight people may actually be healthier overall than sedentary slender people. Thus, the benefits of moderate exercise are undeniable.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: