In Honor of Heart Month

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Most of us think of February and think Valentines: cards, chocolates, romance, flowers. How many of us see it as an opportunity to love on ourselves and others in a lasting way? I believe the commercializing of this day has reduced our focus on its true meaning as we get caught up in a shopping frenzy that really amounts to very little left with us beyond the day itself. The American Heart Association (AHA) dedication of February as Heart Healthy Month gives us the opportunity to correct this wrong and create a lasting relationship between our bodies and ourselves.

I like to think that people who are active are aware of the importance of the heart and the necessity of caring for it as well or even better than they care for the outward person.  To think that the minute it stops beating, that it could be your last, is food for serious thought not just for the active person but for all of us. This month we are reminded of the number of deaths caused by heart disease, the number one cause of deaths in the US.  According to the AHA, 1 in 3 americans die of this silent killer, more than all cancers combined.  This should give us pause, cause us to consider among other things what we are doing to give to this unnaturally high rate. Put another way, how can we help reduce our risks and that of those we care for.

There are five ways in which we can help reduce our risk of heart disease:

1. Don’t smoke.  For years now we have known that smoking causes lung cancer. What some of us may not have known is that it contributes to many other types of cancers and chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, as well. Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body and reduces the health of smokers in general (Center for Disease Control).

2. Exercise.  The benefits of daily regular exercise cannot be overstated. Whether it’s running, aerobics, a cardio workout, whatever it is to keep you moving, breathing properly, sweating out toxins, burning unnecessary calories, generating good blood circulation and producing the endorphins and energy you need is good for your heart and good for you.

3. Eat a Healthy Diet.  The AHA is recommending a mediterranean diet: plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil. Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month and eating fish and poultry at least twice a week.
Drinking red wine in moderation is optional. The diet also emphasizes enjoying meals with family and friends (Mayo Clinic).

4. Reduce Stress.  Stress can influence the risk factors to many types of illness such as high blood pressure, over consumption of alcohol, smoking, physical inactivity, overeating. This can create havoc in your body resulting in all sorts of pain and ailments. Exercising, not smoking, reducing coffee intake,maintaining a positive outlook, a healthy diet and a healthy weight are good ways to deal with stress.

5. Educate and Empower yourself with the latest research and findings that has bearings for your health. Also share your knowledge with family and friends to encourage and empower them as well. Knowledge has no power if it remains in a box.
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At the Heart of Running

The Heart

At the heart of running is a fragile yet strong, complex, judicious, and vital organ upon which our entire being depends. The human heart is as critical to life as air and it goes with little saying how dependent we all are on its proper functioning to live enjoyable lives. Yet it could be, that it is the least appreciated and understood of all our body organs in-so-far as how it works, how we should care for it, and even maximize its efficiency.

The Heart: How it Works

Your heart is an amazing organ. It continuously pumps oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout your body to sustain life. This fist-sized powerhouse beats (expands and contracts) 100,000 times per day, pumping five or six quarts of blood each minute, or about 2,000 gallons per day.

According to an article written on – How Does Exercise Affect Your Heart – on Active.com, Over time, with chronic cardio training, our resting heart rate drops because each beat delivers a bigger burst of blood, and fewer beats are needed.  This takes work off your heart and is why cardio exercise is recommended for heart health. However, cardiovascular exercise can also produce stress. If we get into over-training, we may hit a point where we are drowning in cortisol.  This eventually leads to immune-suppression and fat gain around the abdomen and face.  People who spend a significant part of their day in stress, who have poor digestion or other sources of physiological stress, should not further their stress levels by over-training.  It’s recommended that one should always think of their goals, moderate exercise if necessary, and work to reduce stress level.

As a runner, I have a deep appreciation for the role my heart plays in assisting my natural ability.  But even so, there are times I can take its steady beat for granted and cause it unease and unrest.  In this I know I am not alone.  There have been much debate and discussion about the dangers and or benefits of running, more so long distance running, on the heart.  Dr. Paul Thompson, a cardiologist who specializes in heart disease in athletes, says most élite athletes have hearts that are enlarged by exercise.  Scary right. I’ll step out on a limb here and say that our lack of education on the issue is even scarier.  Doctors, researchers and various writers on the issue seem to believe that there is no one-size-fits-all.  There are runners who’ve run 50+ years without any incidents and then there have been the 1/ 50,000 who have met with disastrous results. For example, a recent study showed that while regular exercise does indeed benefit the heart, some experienced marathoners past the age of 50 had significant calcium deposits in their arteries, thus increasing their likelihood of suffering a heart attack.

imageCaring for The Heart

Our hearts are so complex, there remain many unknowns but what is known is that family history and dietary habits play as critical a role–if not a greater role–in heart health than exercise. This puts your own risk factors high up there on the things to look after when deciding to pursue an active lifestyle. Consider the gene factor, do you have a predisposition? Is there anything in your medical history that could contribute to an onset of any heart issue? These are just two of the many questions that you should consider.
It’s worth the time, effort and money to invest in seeing a doctor about your exercise and or running plans and have a complete check up done, which should include an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)) which is able to measure the electrical activity of the heart and in most cases would show up any abnormal activity. As with most things, this is not fool-proof and a lot is left up to you the runner to ascertain your body limits. Learn to read and listen to your body; know when it’s calling out for rest and when it needs a work out and provide it with a proper diet and nutrition thereby maximizing your chances of being an effective runner while minimizing your risks of injury or even death. The thing is, even with all the advances in technology, knowledge and medicine, no test is infallible, it’s a matter of assessing your odds and going with your gut to pursue something you love. Your chance of dying in a marathon is far slimmer than that of a car accident. That is to say, risks are inherent in everyday life, at every turn and in all impracticality, it is the risky stuff that challenges us, causes us to dare to dream and extend ourselves beyond our human limitations. The joy comes when we discover the hidden potential within and a strong and healthy heart to boot.

Running vs Walking

imagesW0AIPL91The age-old debate over whether it is better to run or walk continues.  Of course runners think they’re totally in the know and far out class their walking counterparts.  While there is a lot of research on the topic and enough said to indicate that both activities are beneficial, it stands to reason that it all depends on what your goal is.  Recent studies on the subject allude to this as well as to the fact that those intending to lose weight are better off running over walking (The Journal of Obesity, 2012).  On the other hand, in a new study, published last month in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, walkers got the edge over runners in the area of heart disease reduction with a 4.5 decrease, while walkers saw their risk of heart disease decrease by more than 9 percent after expending the same amount of energy.

From a runner’s perspective,  I believe it is all about what one hopes to accomplish.  Lots of people and research will tell you that running places a lot more stress on the body than walking, that there is a lot more wear and tear of muscle tissue and that this reduces the average lifespan of a runner, they would be mostly right.  On the other hand, others may say that walking gets you nowhere fast.  Well, that’s debatable and entirely dependent upon your goal.  Obviously if you’re looking to lose weight, running will be the better bet as you’re likely to burn more calories during this form of exercise.  What is also interesting I have found, is that overtime, runners carry weight better.  Controlling weight is much easier according to current research on the issue and it has been found that appetite has a lot of bearing on this.  Runners are found to consume less overall than walkers.  From me to you, I think it has a lot to do with mindset.  Consider the runner who has motivated him or herself to pursue a certain path and gain a specific and desired outcome; overarching total health, such a person is far less likely to engage in unhealthy practices.  Why? Well, for one thing, running is hard work; a lot of commitment and sacrifice, one is hardly likely to wash it all away with a proverbial can of soda.  Also, I think runners are of a more competitive mindset and see their lifestyle as a continuous challenge to be met and overcome; this serves to keep them focused and on track.

People who walk on the other hand, though not necessarily as driven, are nonetheless just as goal oriented as runners.  Such enthusiasts will tell you of their dedication and commitment to the cause of walking and advise you of all its attributes which, like running, affords one a stress outlet and encourages a healthy lifestyle.  What differs are the results; calories burned, weight loss, distance covered, these are all likely to be less for the walker in the short and over the long-term.  That being said, there is a chance they’ll one day out walk runners as the rigors of marathons and ultra marathons do take a toll on the body, though I’m proud to say I know of many aged runners doing quite well.  Walking is a good place to start, if this is you, you’re on the right track and I encourage you to continue.  Who knows one day you might add a little jog in and find that it’s not so bad after all.

So what have we concluded?  Not too much I think, the debate rages on.  What we know to be true is that both running and walking are great forms of exercise that are highly beneficial.  While running may seem to have the edge over walking, I think it’s all a matter of where you’re at and where you want to go.  As a runner though, I think running rocks!  The cheetah agrees.

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