Effects of Exercise on Circulation

The effects of exercise or any physical activity on the human circulatory system (which includes the blood and the heart) depend on the:

  • Type of physical activity
    e.g. walking, playing tennis, playing bowls
  • Intensity of the activity
    e.g. gentle slow walk or 200m sprint
  • Duration of the activity
    e.g. 15 metre swim across a small swimming pool or swimming the English Channel. (Duration means length of time, so for 30 mins or 4 hours, etc.)

The effects of physical activity on the heart and circulation of blood around the body can be considered in terms of both the short term and long term changes due to exercise:

  • Short term
    effects of physical exercise typically result from occasional bursts of extra physical activity.
  • Long term
    effects of physical exercise are the result of frequent physical activity of at least moderate and preferably high intensity e.g. activities that involve using lots of muscles and energy and increasing one's heart-rate during the activity itself - often for at least 20-30 minutes.

... continued below the table

Changes brought about by ...


Effects on the Heart


Effects on the blood circulation

Short-term physical activity

  1. increase pulse rate
  2. increase blood pressure
  1. more (a greater volume of) blood is pumped around the body
  2. blood is diverted from the soft organs within the body into the blood vessels to be moved around the body
  3. the blood transports (i.e. moves) heat from the active muscles to the surface of the body:



body surface

e.g. short run to bus stop

Long-term high intensity activity

  1. heart increases in size
  2. pulse rate "at rest" decreases
  3. stroke volume increases - meaning that the heart pumps more blood with each stroke
  4. heart-rate (pulse) returns to its "resting rate" more quickly after periods of intense activity
  5. over the long term:
    risk of coronary artery disease is generally reduced, though this is also affected by other factors e.g. diet.
  1. Quantity of red blood cells increases - improving the ability of the blood to transport oxygen around the body.
  2. Blood supply to the muscle fibres is improved by more capillaries becoming available to take blood to the muscle tissues.
  3. Similarly, efficiency of return of de-oxygenated blood to the heart is also improved.

e.g. long cycle or cross-country skiing race

also the longer-term effects of frequent intense activity
(see below)

Short-term and long-term effects of exercise on the heart and blood circulation

What is a "short-term effect" ?
One single period of sufficient physical activity may only affect the heart and blood circulation during the activity itself - without having significant longer-term effects. That means that some time, e.g. a day, after a short burst of moderate activity the heart and blood circulation may have completely reverted to their state before (not during) the activity.

What is a "long-term effect", or a "longer-term effect"?
Frequent regular physical activity has longer-term effects than one-off periods of similar activity. This means that the effects of the exercise on the heart and circulation continue to affect the body long after the exercise itself has ceased. So, for example, after a while someone who plays active sports such as football or rugby for at least an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays would benefit from the effects of this exercise on his or her heart and circulatory system during the other days of the week as well - not just while actually participating in the sporting activity.

See also the structure and functions of blood, blood vessels, the structure and functions of the heart, systemic circulation, and lifestyle factors affecting hypertension.

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