Chapter 12: The Heart Muscle
Most people do not think about all of the muscles that are in their bodies. They know about the biceps, because they see bodybuilders flexing their muscles. But, did you know that the heart is a muscle as well?
The heart is an unseen muscle. We know it is in our chests, but it is easily overlooked because we cannot see it. For the most part, you do not even feel it beating. You cannot feel it contract, so you can’t feel it pumping blood. Still, it is there.
A bodybuilder trains his or her muscles with weights. The more training the muscles receive, the stronger they get. Eventually, they operate at peak efficiency.
Bodybuilders aren’t the only ones with strong muscles. Sprinters, for instance, have strong legs. Gymnasts have incredible physiques, with well-built upper and lower muscles. This is because they use their bodyweight to perform the exercises. But, do these athletes have strong hearts? It depends on how they train.
Our hearts are made up of two types of muscles. The first, smooth muscle, is similar to that which operates our stomachs and intestines. The second, striated muscle, matches that of our biceps and triceps. Unlike other muscles, we cannot simply command our hearts to work harder in order to grow stronger. What makes a heart stronger? Clearing the blood vessels from blockage, doing exercises that make it beat faster, and providing our bodies with more oxygen.
If the arteries, veins, and blood vessels are unhealthy, the heart has to push blood past blockages. Overeating leads to a buildup of triglycerides and cholesterol, both of which are in the bloodstream. Eventually, the blood pressure rises and the heart begins to tire out. To keep you heart healthy, do not overeat, and keep your blood vessels clean.
Aside from eating healthily, how can you keep the blood vessels clean? The fitness of a heart is measured in how many times it beats per minute while a person is at rest. A low, resting heart rate, signifies clean blood vessels and a strong heart. In order to achieve this, you must do exercises that prevent high cholesterol by getting the heart to beat faster.
World-class marathoners train on a daily basis. They run for hours in order to get their hearts in shape, so that they are able to complete in upcoming marathons. Can a person who is used to only running around the block compete in the Boston Marathon? Of course, but the real question becomes: can they finish it? No. Their hearts are not strong enough. The heart will beat hard and then will get exhausted because it is not used to this much work. It cannot produce enough oxygenated blood for the person to breathe because it is not in a strong enough condition to do so. A marathoner who trains is able to recover oxygen levels faster than a normal person.
Deep breathing exercises also help the heart because they provide more oxygen to the blood, which improves the bloodstream flow. This keeps the blood vessels slack, which, in turn, makes the heart’s job easier. Increased oxygen levels allow for more chances for the cells to make energy. Therefore, this deep breathing also increases human energy, and further stimulates the heart’s striated muscles.
A well-trained heart is a healthy heart. A typical person has a resting heart rate that is between 60 and 80 beats a minute, and a top class marathoner can have a heartbeat of down to 38 beats a minute.
A lower heart rate is an indication that a heart is doing less work in order to carry out its duties. A heart in peak condition will pump the blood much easier than an out-of-shape heart. If we have an out-of-shape heart, it must work twice as hard to pump the blood throughout our bodies. A good analogy is a car engine. Assume you do not change the oil frequently. Eventually, the engine will get a gummy substance in it: sludge. This sludge builds up, and does not move throughout the engine very easily. The engine works harder to get the oil throughout the system, but it fails. The motor eventually becomes overloaded, and stops running.
Lack of exercise creates stress on the heart. If you do not exercise, it will become weak. If a bodybuilder does not train for two months, he muscles become weaker. If you do not exercise your heart, you might have a heart attack. An athletic heart is a muscle that has been trained to function at peak efficiency. We need a strong heart to live a long life.
People that are healthy and have slow heart rates live longer compared to those with faster heartbeats. To get a healthy heart, practice good quality blood and oxygen circulation exercises. But, before you do any exercise, you must know your physical limitations and physiology level. Without being prepared to play tennis, for example, you may end up harming yourself. You also need to plan for gradual improvement. If you jump into a pool and plan to swim 100 meters as fast as you can, you probably will not succeed. Instead, go as far as you can. Then, the next time you swim, try to go a few meters more.
I personally believe that the best types of exercises focus on endurance. I submit that a marathoner will, on average, live longer than a sprinter. Marathoners can continue exercising until they are quite old; a sprinter cannot. Why do I like exercises that involve some type of running? Because running gets the heart beating faster for an extended period of time. It conditions it. Full court basketball is good, because you are running from one end of the court to the other. I like tennis as well, but any exercise that vigorously works out your heart is what you should practice. Using these types of exercises makes the heart work harder to put oxygen into your body. Those who have an athletic heart and continuously maintain their health may live to be 100 years old.
For a healthy heart, though, you must continually exercise. Do not be like an athlete who has a healthy heart and then retires. Such people eventually have heart attacks, because they are used to expending a larger amount of calories. For example, an Olympic swimmer may eat 5,000 calories a day when training. If they retire, they still eat the same amount of calories, because that is what they are used to. Because they are not exercising to burn them off, they will soon become overweight. The heart must then work harder to get blood throughout their bodies. Triglycerides harden in their arteries, and they can die from a heart attack.
Something else is interesting about endurance athletes. Before they play or exercise, they have fast heart rates. Once they start, their heart rates slow. This is because their muscles move, and, as a result, so do their veins. Arteries carry blood to the body, whereas, veins return it to the heart. By moving muscles, especially those farther away from the heart, the blood circulates more easily. When this happens, it means that the veins are efficiently returning blood to the heart, which is what we want. This further develops the capillaries, and provides our cells with more oxygen. Martial arts develop full body function. This means the heart is strong. As we will see later, our health depends on our hearts.
Marathon runners from poor countries eat whole grains and vegetables. They are in great condition. The average person’s blood pressure is 120/80, but it is not uncommon for these marathoners’ blood pressures to be 100/60, or even lower. They also have very slow heartbeats, as they have balanced, healthy diets and they exercise. A strong heart beats slower than a poorly exercised heart. Contrast this to mice, whose heartbeats are 200-300 beats a minute. The typical life span of a mouse is one year, so a slow heartbeat from eating well and exercising means you live longer.
We need a healthy heart in order to achieve balance. The heart’s main function is to circulate blood. The nice thing that, as our heart function improves, so does the quality of blood that it pumps throughout the body. Blood acts to provide nutrition and oxygen to the cells, and removes CO2. When it is of good quality, our cells are healthier. A strong heart and good blood material keeps us healthy. Their functions, combined with the kidney’s (to filter waste), will make for a strong and balanced body.
There is still a close relationship between our heart’s function, the quality of blood it makes, and our diets. We can have a heart that is in peak condition, but if the blood it makes is sticky due to a bad diet, it will have to work harder. This puts too much stress on the heart.
How can you measure how healthy your heart is? Determine your heart rate and blood pressure. A good blood pressure of, say, 110 over 70, is a sure sign you are on the right track to having a healthy heart.
In order for us to maintain a healthy heart, we must keep several things in check. The first is stress. We must try not to let things like money, relationships, and time commitments cause us stress. Since all things must be balanced, some stress is to be expected in our lives, but we cannot let our stress levels get so high as to harm our health. What happens when your stress levels become consistently high? High blood pressure. Ask your doctor, and they will confirm this. High stress leads to overeating, excessive drinking, smoking, drug use, and more. The list goes on and on. If we take control of our stress, we won’t eat poorly, and we definitely won’t feel the urge to drink to excess and use drugs and such.
So, how can we reduce stress levels in today’s fast paced world? For most people, the main source of stress is work. There is nothing wrong with putting in an honest day’s labor for an honest day’s pay, just do not overdo it. Arriving at the office before everybody else and leaving after everybody else is overdoing it. If you are that swamped, ask the company to hire somebody to help you. Along the same lines, always make it a point to take the lunch breaks you deserve, and never leave your vacation days unused.
Another possible source of high stress levels is the twenty-first century’s mode of “relaxing.” Although it is okay once in a while, do not use up all of your free time surfing the Internet or binge-watching your favorite television shows. It is important to set aside the time to be physically active, especially if your job requires you to spend your whole day at a desk. Not only will exercise help improve your mental state, it will also keep your body in good condition. It is really good if you can go outside, and get some sun and fresh air.
Finally, although I have already mentioned it, control what you put into your body. Eat quality foods, and do not stuff yourself. Just eat as much as you need, like the sparrow.