Growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11) is a member of the transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-β1) superfamily that reverses age-related cardiac hypertrophy, improves muscle regeneration and angiogenesis, and maintains progenitor cells in injured tissue. Recently, targeted myocardial delivery of the GDF11 gene in aged mice was found to reduce heart failure and enhance the proliferation of cardiac progenitor cells after myocardial ischemia–reperfusion (I–R). No investigations have as yet explored the cardioprotective effect of exogenous recombinant GDF11 in acute I–R injury, despite the convenience of its clinical application. We sought to determine whether exogenous recombinant GDF11 protects against acute myocardial I–R injury and investigate the underlying mechanism in Sprague–Dawley rats. We found that GDF11 reduced arrhythmia severity and successfully attenuated myocardial infarction; GDF11 also increased cardiac function after I–R, enhanced HO-1 expression and decreased oxidative damage. GDF11 activated the canonical TGF-β signaling pathway and inactivated the non-canonical pathways, ERK and JNK signaling pathways. Moreover, administration of GDF11 prior to reperfusion protected the heart from reperfusion damage. Notably, pretreatment with the activin-binding protein, follistatin (FST), inhibited the cardioprotective effects of GDF11 by blocking its activation of Smad2/3 signaling and its inactivation of detrimental TGF-β signaling. Our data suggest that exogenous GDF11 has cardioprotective effects and may have morphologic and functional recovery in the early stage of myocardial I–R injury. GDF11 may be an innovative therapeutic approach for reducing myocardial I–R injury.