People who exercise can get so carried away with building muscle that they can easily forget that if the heart isn’t working right, not much else is going to matter. Your heart is a fist-size muscle located in your chest. Depending upon your level of fitness, it beats about 90,000 to 100,000 times each day or perhaps even more. Within one’s lifetime, it will beat nearly three billion times and pump 42 million gallons of blood. Unfortunately, many hearts cannot function properly because of various diseases, most of which are caused by poor lifestyle habits such as lack of proper diet, being sedentary, and high stress levels. Although there has been a great deal of progress in fighting heart disease, 4/10 deaths are the result of cardiovascular disease (CVD). In addition, nearly one out of every four adults suffers from some form of cardiovascular disease. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (USA), if all forms of CVD were eliminated, total life expectancy would rise by nearly 10 years.
Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fatty, plaque material in the inner layer of blood vessels and is the underlying factor in 85% of CVD. This can be compared to a plumbing pipe in use for many years. As corrosion builds up in the pipe, the amount of water reaching the faucet is decreased. If we don’t take care of ourselves, this is exactly what will happen to the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart muscle. Atherosclerosis is a process that begins very early in life. It progresses until the blockage can become so severe that the heart cannot receive the oxygen and nutrients it needs. This can, G-d forbid, result in a heart attack or other heart problems.
Lev Tohor Bara Li Elokim! Hashem created us with spiritually pure hearts and most of the population is created with physically perfect hearts as well. Unfortunately, we spend our lives doing things that damage our hearts. Amongst risk factors for developing heart disease are lack of cardio-respiratory fitness, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, poor diet, and possibly high blood cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercise is highly effective in minimizing these risks. An appropriate aerobic program helps lower blood pressure, provides an incentive for smokers to quit (have you ever tried running or biking at intense levels when you smoke?), helps increase one’s level of HDL (good cholesterol), keeps your weight lower, and helps prevent and control type 2 diabetes.
WHAT GOES WRONG? What exactly is the dreaded “heart attack”? The medical term for a heart attack is a Myocardial Infarction. The heart requires its own constant supply of oxygen and nutrients like any muscle in the body. Two large branching coronary arteries deliver oxygenated blood to the heart muscle. If one of these arteries or branches becomes blocked suddenly, a portion of the heart becomes starved of oxygen, a condition called “cardiac ischemia.” If cardiac ischemia lasts too long, the starved heart tissue dies. This is a heart attack, or a myocardial infarction — literally, “death of heart muscle.”
WARNING SIGNS! Most heart attacks occur over several hours. Never wait to seek help if you think a heart attack is beginning. In some cases there are no symptoms at all, but most heart attacks produce some chest pain. Other signs of a heart attack include shortness of breath, dizziness, faintness, confusion, sweating or nausea. The pain of a severe heart attack has been likened to a giant fist enclosing and squeezing the heart. If the attack is mild, it may be mistaken for heartburn. The pain may be constant or intermittent. Also, women are less likely to experience the classic symptoms of chest pain. The sooner you can get to the emergency department of a hospital, the less long-term damage there will be to your heart.
Another area to keep an eye on is heart rhythm. By simply learning how to take your pulse, you can identify your normal heart beat (normal sinus rhythm) or an arrhythmia. Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) come in many different forms and each one indicates a different aspect of a defective functioning of your heart. These may be what we call PVCs, or premature ventricle contractions. This is when your heart is out of rhythm because it sometimes beats earlier than it should in your normal sequence. Almost everyone will experience this at some time in their life, particularly in your youth. If feels like your heart skips a beat. If this occurs often, your need to find out the cause and have it treated.
Your out-of-rhythm heart might be because of a heart block. This is when the electrical impulses from the atria are not properly transmitted to the lower chambers. This can be accompanied by fatigue and light-headedness. Many times a pacemaker is the primary treatment.
Sick Sinus Syndrome is another cause of arrhythmia. It is a cluster of symptoms that indicate that the natural pacemaker of the heart, the SA node, is not working properly. In this syndrome, the heart rate can fluctuate between being too slow (bradycardia) and too fast (tachycardia). Sinus bradycardia is a common arrhythmia. This is a constant beating of less than 60 beats per minute. In people who exercise intensely, this can be a normal thing and it is a good thing as it means your heart is working very efficiently. However if it is accompanied with fatigue and shortness of breath and episodes of passing out, seek help—you might need a pacemaker.
As mentioned earlier, aerobic exercise is the one of the keys to keeping your heart healthy (as is not smoking and eating properly). I have trained people who have had heart attacks in the past and people with many of the different arrhythmias we have mentioned in this article. Exercise is not only the key to preventing heart problems, it is the best way to rehabilitate your heart if it is damaged in any way. There are numerous stories of people who have had heart attacks or other forms of heart disease being able to run marathons afterwards and noting that they are in better physical shape after a heart attack than before because they became exercisers.
50 years ago when people had heart disease, the medical establishment did exactly the wrong thing—bed rest! This ended up hurting the recovery of these people and often killed them. Today, thank G-d, we have people up and moving within days with cardiac rehabilitation centers in the hospitals themselves, which are covered by insurance. The best thing you can do for yourself after a heart attack is to get up and get moving—but in a supervised setting. Exercise is not only the best preventative for heart disease; it is also the best healer.
Whether you are trying to prevent heart disease, recover from a heart attack, or manage your health and fitness with an arrhythmia, supervised aerobic exercise will be the key that will “add hours to your days, days to your years, and years to your life.”
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a CERTIFIED WELLNESS COACH with over 18 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! and is available for private consultations, assessments and personalized workout programs. Alan also lectures and gives seminars and workshops. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org Check out his web site – www.alanfitness.com US Line: 516-568-5027