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Here’s How Running Affects Your Heart: Training without risk to health

Running, Heart, Training, Health

It’s no secret that running is a great way to stay in shape. Pounding the pavement, trail or treadmill provides many bodily benefits, including keeping your heart in tip-top condition. We took a deeper look at what running does for your heart and the risks it can pose, too.

A Healthier Heart

Running’s impact on the heart has long been studied. In 1985, one study concluded that “Regular runners have slow resting pulse rates and a high maximal oxygen consumption.” Echocardiographic studies have also shown that distance runners have “larger, thicker left ventricles and their hearts are more efficient than those of sedentary people, pumping a larger volume per beat.” This phenomenon is called “Athlete’s Heart,” and is a result of intense cardiovascular workouts. No matter the number of miles you log each week, it all adds up to a lower resting heart rate, lower bad cholesterol in your blood and lower blood pressure.

How Running Keeps Your Heart Strong

Most of us know that muscles get stronger with exercise. When we exert ourselves, little tears form in our muscles and are then repaired during periods of rest, with muscles coming back stronger than before. Because your heart is a muscle, the same rule applies. Just like your other muscles, your heart needs time to recover. Experts recommend alternating hard runs with easier workouts in order for your heart to grow stronger. But heed this warning: Without that rest, some studies suggest that excessive endurance exercise can actually damage the heart.

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Small Amounts of Running Pay Off

You don’t need to go out and run thirty miles a week in order to help your heart. In fact, a 2014 study from the Journal of American College of Cardiology found that people who ran just 30 to 59 minutes a week – just a few minutes each day – decreased their risk of cardiovascular death by 58 percent when compared to those who don’t run at all.

Studies also show that runners live on average three years longer than people who don’t run. And you don’t have to be a fast, or even a regular runner, to reap these benefits. If you’re looking to add years to your life, running is the answer.

The Risks of Running

Whenever a seemingly fit runner has a cardiac event while running, it makes the news and stokes rumors that running is to blame. The fear of damaging a healthy heart, or finding out too late about a previously undiscovered heart condition, can be enough to make a would-be runner shy away from the sport. But what are the real odds of experiencing cardiac trouble while running?

While there is evidence to suggest that your likelihood of having a sudden cardiac arrest is higher while running, the overall likelihood of this happening is very small. Still, make sure to pay attention to your body while running. If you feel chest pain, shortness of breath or heart palpitations, make sure to stop running and seek medical attention.

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Genetic Heart Abnormalities: When a young and healthy runner does die while running, it’s almost always due to a genetic heart abnormality called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the walls of the heart become thickened for no known reason. This condition affects 1 in 500 people. Though deaths like these often steal headlines, the risk of such an occurrence is quite low.

Heart Disease: Even if you’re born without a heart condition, there’s a chance you may develop one as you age. Heart disease is a broad term that describes a range of conditions that affect the heart, including clogged arteries that can cause heart attacks and stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in America.

If you have heart disease, you should have a conversation with your doctor before starting a running routine. However, even the American Heart Association advises that people with congenital heart disease engage in regular exercise. While they recommend talking to your doctor about your individual exercise needs, they say the best and safest types of exercise for people with genetic heart conditions are aerobic activities including light running.

It’s important to note that the risk of sudden cardiac arrest is highest in individuals who make a sudden jump from couch potato to high-intensity training. To avoid injuring the heart, ease into any new workout, slowly adding miles and listening to your body.

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Extreme Running Troubles: A recent study tested extreme endurance runners before and after the Race Across the USA, which, as the name eludes, has athletes running across the country from California to Maryland in 140 days. The study found that the four participants with pre-existing heart disease saw a drastic increase in plaque build-up during and after the race. The risk of plaque is that it can rupture and cause a heart attack. The study concluded that extreme running may not provide the same heart-healthy benefits that more moderate running provides.

So at the end of the day, what’s the final word on running for heart health? Across the board, experts agree that low to moderate amounts of running is one of the best things you can do for your ticker. If you have a pre-existing heart condition, talk to your doctor before lacing up your running shoes, but odds are you’ll be running laps around that track in no time – and your heart will thank you for it.

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© Kim Dinan


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