Exercise Your Heart Really Needs

Health Alert 58

Here’s a fact missed by just about everyone. To keep your heart beating longer and stronger, long duration endurance training is the last thing that it needs. You will do much more for your heart by exercising in brief spurts. Ten minutes a day, if you do it effectively.

*Less is More*

Conventional wisdom says that your heart needs endurance training to remain healthy. Indeed, they use cardiovascular endurance (CVE) as a synonym for heart conditioning. But is this really what your heart needs? I don’t think so.

Heart attacks aren’t caused by a lack of endurance. Heart attacks typically occur at rest or at periods of very high cardiac output. Often there is a sudden increase in demand. A person lifts a heavy object, is having sex or receives an unexpected emotional blow. The sudden demand for cardiac output exceeds that heart’s capacity to adapt.

What you really need is faster cardiac output. By exercising for long periods, you actually induce the opposite response. When you exercise continuously for more than about 10 minutes, your heart has to become more efficient. Greater efficiency comes from “downsizing”. You give up maximal capacity because smaller can go further.

A recent Harvard study examined middle-aged men, exercise, and cardiovascular health. Researchers found that men who performed repeated short bouts of exercise reduced their heart disease risk by 100% more than those who performed long duration exercise.

So how do you increase your cardiac capacity? I have worked with athletes, trainers and patients at our Research Foundation to produce P.A.C.E. (Progressively Accelerating Cardiopulmonary Exertion). It has produced dramatic results in my cardiac patients.

*Getting Started*

The first feature of the P.A.C.E. plan is progressivity. This simply means repeated changes in the same direction. Do a bit extra this week that you didn’t do last week.

Most people doing cardiovascular exercise increase the duration. That’s precisely what I want you to avoid. Gradually increase some measure of intensity instead. Begin light and gradually pick up the pace or add resistance as your capacity increases.

The second principle is acceleration. In other words, get up to speed a little faster in the next session than you did in the last. When you are deconditioned, it will take several minutes to gear up your breathing and heart rates. But as you get more accustomed to the challenge, you will respond faster. As you get into better shape, you will increase the intensity in each session and increase the intensity earlier in each session.

You must do one other thing differently than standard exercise of the past. As your conditioning increases, decrease the duration of the exercise interval. Use briefer and briefer episodes of gradually increasing intensity. Start with 20 minutes every other day. As you get into better shape, break those 20 minutes into two 10 minute intervals with 5 minutes of rest in between. After a few weeks, break those 20 minutes into four 5 minute intervals with 2 minutes of rest in between. Continue to break your exercise into shorter intervals at you own pace.

When you are well conditioned, you will be using “mini-intervals”. For instance, my intervals for biking are less than a minute followed by a minute of rest repeated for 8 intervals.

You can use any activity that will give your heart and lungs a bit of a challenge. My favorites are swimming, biking, running and elliptical machines. I switch off between them to keep it fun and lower the chance of “overuse injuries”. What you will use will depend on your level of fitness. The important thing again is that the challenge advances gradually through time.

*Bonus Benefits*

In addition to increasing the capacity of your heart and lungs, short-duration exercise:

• Burns your fat. In Health Alert 28, I showed the benefits of short-duration exercise for fat loss

• Improves your cholesterol. I have observed this in my own clinic. A new Irish study confirms this phenomenon.

• Boosts your testosterone. Testosterone counters memory loss, the accumulation of fat, low libido, sexual dysfunction, and the loss of strength and bone in both men and women.

• Saves your time. You don’t need to spend hours at the gym. Use that extra time and your new-found vigor to enjoy your life.

Al Sears MD