And A Discussion About Exercises
The concept that being inactive and heart disease are related is a pretty well-accepted idea in our society today. There are many explanations for why this occurs and they all mainly have to do with metabolism, food intake, and energy expenditure. (This is why you’re supposed to run 10 miles if you eat a strip of bacon, right?)
While these ideas are certainly not wrong, I think there’s an important concept that many of us are missing when we try to lower our heart and vessel disease risk.
What I’m talking about here is the concept of a rising “vascular age” due to inactivity and stiffness of our bodies.
But first, let’s talk about blood flow in the body.
How Blood Normally Flows In The Body
For the sake of discussion, let’s start thinking about blood flow at the level of the heart. The heart is a shockingly complex organ that, for our purposes, we can simplify into 2 parts: the right side and the left side.
The right side of the heart is responsible for pumping blood into the lungs, where it can pick up oxygen and drop off carbon dioxide (a by-product of metabolism). From the vessels of the lungs, blood returns back to the left side of the heart where it get pumped out to the rest of the body through arteries.
The arteries get smaller and smaller as the blood travels to the tissues of the bodies and finally become what are known as capillaries. Capillaries as basically webs of tiny vessels that allow blood to drop of nutrients and oxygen to the tissues and organs and pick up metabolic waste. From the capillaries, the blood is carried back to the right side of the heart by a series of increasingly bigger and bigger veins.
This entire process is astoundingly efficient: you pump roughly 5 liters (depending on how big you are) of blood through your entire body every minute.
Types of Vessels
Your heart is helped out a lot by your vessels (the arteries and veins). Arteries are tougher vessels with muscles that can contract to control your blood pressure and the resistance than your heart has to pump against. Veins are more compliant and can be used as a storage area for a large part of our blood volume, depending on what’s going on at the level of the heart.
The Interaction of the Heart, Vessels, and Immobility
As you can see, the health of the heart is closely related to the health of the vessels that help the heart efficiently get blood to the rest of the body and back.
When we don’t use our body, it not only effects our heart health but it has a HUGE impact on the structural health of our blood vessels…especially the big vessels, such as our aorta.
When our muscles, bones, ligaments, and connective tissues become tight from inactivity and immobility, the associated blood vessels that course through those areas become immobile as well.
As blood flows through rigid and abnormally “kinked” arteries and veins, there is impedance to blood flow and increased stress on the walls of the vessels. These areas of increased wall stress can lead to inflammation and, consequently, kick off the start of the plaque formation process that we refer to when we talk about heart and vessel disease.
Note: While dietary fat has long been blamed for the formation of cholesterol plaques in the arteries leading to heart and vessel disease, there’s an ever growing body of data that shows that inflammation and vessel damage is first necessary to kick off this process. This topic is huge, complicated, and hotly debated…therefore the nitty gritty details will be a topic for another day!
Additionally, it’s not hard to see that because blood flows in a continuous manner, stress at the level of the vessels will cause stress at the level of the heart. Increased rigidity in parts of blood vessels will cause blood flow to reflect in a backwards manner to the left side of the heart. This leads to increased work load (how hard the heart has to squeeze), increased heart filling volumes (your heart has to pump out a greater blood volume), and potential for creating pathological changes in the heart muscle and heart valves.
What Exercises Should I Do?
After reading this, you might logically conclude that you should be going out for runs regularly or should do more weight lifting. And sure, I think those things are fantastic things to do if you can do them.
However, I think as a society we tend to get a little crazy about specific exercises and less about just moving in general. Therefore, I don’t believe that you need to be running 5 miles a day, lifting insanely heavy weights, or become a professional yogi to get the heart disease benefits we’re all looking for.
Instead, I advocate for taking regular breaks throughout your day to walk around. Take 10 minutes at the start and end of the day to stretch your entire body (it’s especially important to do twists to mobilize the large vessels in the trunk). Carry your groceries instead of getting a cart. Pick up your child instead of putting them in a stroller. Do 10 squats with proper form while the water in shower heats up. Hang from a doorway in your house. Challenge your spouse to a pushup competition or your kids to a cartwheel challenge. Sit on the ground while you watch TV instead of on the couch.
The list could go on indefinitely because these aren’t just exercises…it’s a list of things you do just living your life but with mobility and health in mind. Not only will your body feel better as you live your life but your heart will be happier for all the years to come.