The Elastic Heart: The Importance of Exercise for Heart Flexibility
IF Insider No. 71
In our last issue (IF Insider No. 70), we took a deep dive (pun intended!) into the world of water and why some consider it the ultimate superfood for maximum health.
For our premium subscribers, in this week’s Research Spotlight, we examine a recently published review article looking at intermittent fasting’s effect on bone health, a concern for many of us who have made fasting a daily part of our lives for several years.
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Heart Flexibility: A New Key To Fitness
Today we will take a closer look at how exercise affects one of the most important organs in your body...your heart.
First, it’s important to understand that your heart is a muscle. And just like any other muscle, if it’s not exercised, it can grow weaker as you age. This weakening is not critical if you are talking about a muscle in your arm, but because your very life depends on the ability of your heart muscle to pump oxygen-rich blood out to your brain and the rest of your body, this is serious stuff!
Your heart has four chambers but it’s the muscular left ventricle that is responsible for pushing that oxygen-rich blood out to the rest of your body. With age, the left ventricle stiffens and along with age-related stiffening of your body’s arteries, this can propel you into a cycle of cardiovascular aging which, if not halted, could lead to heart failure later in life.
Fortunately, your heart will respond to exercise like the rest of your body’s muscles. How does it help? Unlike your other muscles, the left ventricle doesn’t get stronger. Instead, it’s forced to pump more blood during exercise to keep up with your body’s demands. This increased blood flow causes your blood vessels to enlarge and relax to accommodate the increased flow, and this relaxation in turn, makes your heart more efficient.
Over time, your baseline heart rate will decrease, along with your blood pressure. Your blood vessels literally become more elastic and this effect goes beyond the actual exercise session itself. What kind of exercise and how much do you need to protect your heart from the effects of aging? We’ll get to that in just a minute, but first, if you have ever used the excuse of having no time to exercise because you have too much to do around the house, take a look at this.
Don’t have time to exercise because you have to clean your house? That’s no excuse, according to the founder of a Japanese house cleaning service who has been proposing a way of cleaning your home which she calls, Bi Soji...this means making your body beautiful and healthy by cleaning the rooms in your house. To do this, she recommends paying attention to the muscles you are using while cleaning and move your body slowly while doing such activities as wiping windows or floors or vacuuming and even dusting. Who knew house cleaning could be good for your health?
Back to the amount of exercise you need to protect your heart from the stiffening effects of aging. A recent study published in the heart journal Circulation looked at whether the effects of aging could be reversed in a group of men and women, ages 45 to 64, who were healthy but who were not exercisers. They divided the participants into two groups...one group was given an aerobic exercise program that increased in intensity over two years. The other group did yoga, balance training and weight training three times a week for two years.
After the two year period the researchers looked at the fitness levels of the study participants’ hearts using two measures. First, they measured the maximum oxygen uptake by the body during exercise (this is called the VO2 max) and is a marker of both longevity and physical fitness. They also measured the flexibility of the left ventricle.
The results? The aerobic exercise group had an 18% improvement in their VO2 max during exercise and more than a 25% improvement in the elasticity of their left ventricles. These benefits were not seen in the second group. Now keep in mind this was over two years, so this was no short-term program. I think this just underscores that exercise has to be viewed as one of those things that is simply a rountine part of your life, like brushing your teeth.
Now you may be curious as to exactly what the aerobic group did when they exercised so I’ll break it down for you here: Each session was about 30 minutes, plus a warm up and cool down period.
At first, they began with three, 30 minute exercise sessions for the first 3 months then began the high intensity training, so there was a 3 month break in period.
This included one high intensity aerobic session, doing something like four sets of four minutes of exercise at 95% of their maximum heart rate followed by an active recovery period of 3 minutes at 60 to 75% of their peak heart rate.
They also did moderate-intensity exercise 2 or 3 days a week, where you break a sweat but can still carry on a conversation.
They did a once a week strength training session. And, once a week they did a long session of aerobic exercise, like an hour of tennis, cycling, running, dancing or brisk walking.
And they did this over two years to acheive the gains in heart health. This is a serious long-term committment and you may balk at the idea. But, if you have ever seen someone struggling to breathe and on oxygen because they are in heart failure and this regimen is proven to guard against that possibility, then this routine seems sensible to consider.
To close, your IF Insider tip for today is, especially if you are in that 45 to 64 year old age bracket, to begin a program to restore flexibility to your heart.
Howden EJ, Sarma S, Lawley JS, Opondo M, Cornwell W, Stoller D, Urey MA, Adams-Huet B, Levine BD. Reversing the Cardiac Effects of Sedentary Aging in Middle Age-A Randomized Controlled Trial: Implications For Heart Failure Prevention. Circulation. 2018 Apr 10;137(15):1549-1560. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.030617. Epub 2018 Jan 8. PMID: 29311053; PMCID: PMC5893372.
Why It Matters
“Heart intelligence is the intelligent flow of awareness and insight that we experience once the mind and emotions are brought into balance and coherence through a self-initiated process. This form of intelligence is experienced as direct, intuitive knowing that manifests in thoughts and emotions that are beneficial for ourselves and others.”
~ Doc Lew Childre (b. 1945) is the founder of the Heartmath Institute, a non-profit organization whose objective is to help the development of "heart-brain-coherence.”
What We Are Reading 📚
Denise - A few months ago, Ellen mentioned a podcast called Relaxing White Noise. I was experiencing a period of fitful sleep and decided to see if it would help me have deeper, less interrupted sleep.
And it does! The episodes are 8 hours, described as “featuring white noise and nature sounds to help you sleep, study or soothe a baby.”. I always select one with nature sounds, usually rain, waves, or a waterfall, and keep the audio very low.
I’ve been amazed that it helps me tune out the persistent noises that can’t be avoided when living in an urban environment. I track my sleep with a Fitbit-like wearable and have noticed that I consistently get a long stretch of deep sleep and feel more refreshed in the morning.
You can subscribe to the Relaxing White Noise podcast on Spotify.
Ellen - Like many people, I have long been fascinated with honeybees. I remember one year as a child when my father donned his beekeeping outfit, consisting of white long-sleeved coveralls complete with a netted hat. He and an experienced bee-keeper friend “smoked” the bees to keep them calm, then harvested a big enamel dishpan of honey and honeycomb. I’ll never forget the luscious, somehow “wild” taste of that golden liquid, and the octagonal shape of the cells in the honeycomb.
I’ve also been long enamored with the many works of Rudolph Steiner, the Austrian teacher and thinker who died in 1925. If you look him up on sites such as Wikipedia, you’ll see an attempt to dismiss him as an occultist but his work was extraordinary in so many areas, from Waldorf schools to biodynamic farming and gardening, to thousands of global initiatives inspired by his work. Here’s what the Rudolph Steiner website has to say about who he was:
“Researcher, teacher, artist, Rudolf Steiner enlarged and deepened the concept of what it is to be human. He linked the human to the cosmic, past to future, for self-development and conscious evolution.”
His book, The World of Bees, is a compilation of his lectures on these fascinating creatures and is a wonderful introduction to his thought. Here is just a short excerpt from the book:
“If we consider ourselves and other vertebrates, we can imagine that our life processes and soul stirrings are governed from somewhere within the body, while our sense organs connect this inner world with our outer surroundings. When we make contact with an animal of some kind, we can observe its eyes, body language and behavior. This is not so self-evident in the bee colony. The place where coordination of the hive’s body and should occurs cannot be physically located. While we experience its unity we cannot grasp it physically. It is not to be found in the separate bee, and so it must lie somewhere between all the creatures. This compels us to imagine a spiritual bond that unifies them…which is what ultimately characterizes the other way of looking at bees.”
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