Exercise keeps your heart beating happily

Yes, this is indeed correct.
Yes, this is indeed correct.

I can’t help myself. It’s Valentine’s Day and Meme Day Friday besides. (Thank you, Dwight Schrute, for your contribution to today’s Every48 post.) It’s time for a post on the science of what regular, vigorous exercise does for your heart.

1. It increases your aerobic threshold, so that you can run faster for a longer period of time without getting flooded with the lactic acid that makes you slow down.

2. It strengthens your heart so that it needs fewer beats per minute to pump the same amount of blood.

3. It increases the recovery rate at which your heart rate goes down to normal after a vigorous effort. In other words, it takes less time for your heart to go from a “work” heart rate (mine is anywhere between 160 and 185 beats per minute, depending on what exercise I’m doing) to a resting heart rate (mine hovers around 55 to 60).

4. And a whole host of other benefits that positively affect cholesterol levels, inflammation, and our long-term risks of heart disease.

Like all muscles, the heart becomes stronger as a result of exercise, so it can pump more blood through the body with every beat and continue working at maximum level, if needed, with less strain. The resting heart rate of those who exercise is also slower, because less effort is needed to pump blood.

– from The New York Times health guide “Exercise’s Effect on the Heart”

One of the many beautiful and informative health images available from the New York Times' health guides. The heart - like the body - is a machine.
One of the many beautiful and informative health images available from the New York Times’ health guides. The heart – like the body – is a machine. Treat it like one, and it will treat you well for a lifetime.

Did you know that the New York  Times doesn’t just have the day’s articles online – it also has some quite impressive online health guides? Well, now you know. They’re really impressive and very informative, and if you’re looking for another reason to get out there and work out, the Times will hand you tons of reasons.

I guess one of the reasons I think so much about exercise and heart health is that the heart – the actual organ – has been a part of my family’s health lore as long as I can remember. After my grandfather died when I was eleven years old, somehow that experience got to me and I distinctly remember thinking that our family must be susceptible to heart disease, so I’d better do something about it. I tried running for the first time as a sport when I was twelve, in middle school track. I remember a nice married couple from my church taking me to the high school track with them to run one day – and they gave me a pair of castoff running shoes to get me started. They were blue New Balance shoes. Turned out I had flat arches and overpronating feet – not a great recipe for running success – but that was the seed, right there, for all of the miles that have come since then. Did I foresee the fifteen marathons (and counting)? The love affair with the Boston Marathon that started in 1990 when I was a freshman in college there and I got in the back of the pack in Hopkinton and ran fourteen miles to Wellesley – further than I had ever run in my life – and took the commuter rail back to Boston, where I saw all of the race finishers walking around with their mylar blankets and medals and decided I wanted to finish that race the next time I started it? The sportswriting that has taken me around the world to cover the world’s best runners?

There is a direct link between my family’s history of heart disease and my starting to run, and everything that has happened since then. When I say “I heart marathoning,” it’s coming from, well, the heart.

The link between lifestyle and heart disease is a subject I’ll explore more in future posts, because I lost more than two grandfathers to heart disease. I also lost my father.

It was a heartbreaking loss not only because I believe it was thoroughly preventable had he made different life choices, but because the downward spiral of health that he experienced over the last years of his life was something I both witnessed and wished I could change. I wanted to do something to help him redirect his life and even at a young age I could tell from watching my father that our life choices directly affect our long-term health.  Dad was just a bit too lost in his own problems and worries to be able to see the way out.

My wish for you today on this Valentine’s Day is for you to spend an hour or so strengthening your heart. The dividends that small investment will pay over the long haul are just too great to capture in a single post. There is someone out there who wants you to live to be 81 years old, which is the age my father would be turning tomorrow if he had lived a long and healthy life. We lost him at age 58, but with his passing, he might have taught me one of life’s greatest lessons. Take care of your heart.

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