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Heart Healthy Running
Running is well known for its health benefits to the heart….but in what way? We explore this question whilst also acknowledging that running could be detrimental to heart health under certain conditions. There are also many risk factors for heart dysfunction including:
We delve into these before moving on to address the ones that are within our control therefore could be adapted/changed to promote a healthy heart.
Let’s have a quick look at HOW the heart works. Put simply, the heart is a large muscle divided into four chambers: the left and right atrium, and the left and right ventricle. In essence, it is a muscular pump that creates a “pressure head” needed to pump blood around the body. Arteries take blood away from the heart, whilst the veins carry blood to the heart. The heart works in a repeating pattern of contraction, and relaxation, which is known as the cardiac cycle. This repeating cycle is how blood pressure is measured i.e. heart muscle contraction is the systolic reading of blood pressure whilst heart muscle relaxation is the diastolic reading of blood pressure.
Looking at the potential negative effects of running on heart health including:
Sudden Cardiac Death – this is tragic but occurs very rarely and is usually linked to an undiagnosed heart condition.
Athlete’s Heart Syndrome - thought to be most prevalent in middle aged amateur male long-distance runners. Possibly because they begin running in mid-life and tend to do too much too quickly i.e. inadequately trained leading to functional and structural maladaptations.
Discussing the positive effects of running on heart health including:
Increased heart mass – potentially to a level similar to that of elite athletes
Reduced heart muscle damage following a heart attack – from 3-5 consecutive days of moderate exercise
Increased cardiac mitochondria - our energy powerhouses
Reduced risk of arterial fibrillation – a condition casing an irregular and possibly abnormally fast heart rate
Maintenance of cardiac output as we age – linked to ventricular compliance
Considering the risk factors for cardiac dysfunction including risk factors within and outside our control.
Risk factors outside our control include:
- Familial history
- Genetic predisposition
Risk factors within our control include:
- Activity levels
- Females at lower risk of cardiovascular disease besides men, however they are still at risk especially as they age.
- Women are at greater risk of suffering as stroke besides men, especially as they get older
- Although women are at lower risk of CVD than men, it is still the number one killer of women in the UK…and USA. The death rate is higher than that from breast cancer.
- Certain ethnic groups are at increased risk of CVD including those of South African and Asian origin.
How can nutrition and lifestyle support a healthy heart?
Here we need to think about the risk factors WITHIN our control; the ones we could change or remove.
One style of eating that is known to be supportive to heart health is the Mediterranean Diet. This diet is considered a functional diet and there is increasing scientific evidence supporting its beneficial effects on heart health. The Mediterranean Diet is one focus containing primarily plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, the low glycemic index, whole grains, and complex carbohydrates (e.g. legumes, so the the lentils, peas, beans), nuts, herbs and spices. It is also rich in the essential fatty acids found in oily fish, and seafood. Red meat is present in the diet but only between 5-10 times per month. A little red wine is also enjoyed.
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet is another eating style that is heart healthy. It is similar to the Mediterranean diet but there is a specific focus on reducing salt and sodium intake to approx. 1500mg to 2300mg.
Additional recommendations to help minimize the risk factors for cardiac dysfunction include:
- Stop smoking
- Limit alcohol intake
- Reduce Stress
- Maintain appropriate body composition
- REGULAR and MODERATE physical activity is very beneficial to heart health and it is thought that as little as around 15mins of physical activity per day could have significant preventative effects towards cardiovascular events e.g heart attack
- BUT it has to be acknowledged that running…..long and intensive running…can be deleterious to heart health, especially in mid-life poorly trained male runners
- There are many risk factors for cardiovascular disease some of which are outside our control and others that are within our control
- It is important for us to acknowledge and change/remove the risk factors within our control e.g. diet, smoking, stress
- Dietary changes to consider include following a Mediterranean style of eating and drinking and considering this alongside the DASH diet, which has a specific focus on reducing sodium intake
- Lifestyle changes you could introduce include; getting sufficient sleep CONSISTENTLY, stopping smoking (if you do), reducing the stressors in your life
- Finally, keep on running….you are already taking care of your heart by running regularly,,,but just remember to maintain MODERATE levels of exercise…or if you are an endurance runner, ensuring you train appropriately. It may be worth investing in a running coach who can personalise your training
The suggestions we make during this episode are for guidance and
advice only, and are not a substitute for medical advice or treatment.
If you have any concerns regarding your health, please contact
your healthcare professional for advice as soon as possible.
Aileen Smith and Karen Campbell met at as nutrition students (Institute for Optimum Nutrition, London) and became lifelong friends and nutritional buddies! Both have a love of running and a passion for nutrition, delicious food and healthy living.
Together they host RUNNERS HEALTH HUB. A place for like-minded runners who are looking for simple ways to support running performance, energy, endurance, and general great health.
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Aileen and Karen