We all get winded walking up a flight of stairs, even the fittest of athletes! That feeling of your heart thumping is a reminder that this incredible muscle is part of everything we do. We need to take care of that organ if we want to live a long and healthy life, but sadly heart disease is the number one killer of people in North America. So what can we do? In this article I will discuss how physical exercise and diet relate to your cardiovascular (CV) health.
Regular Physical Movement & Exercise
Our bodies are designed to move, we are built perfectly for tasks like walking long distances, lifting / pushing / pulling, etc., and we should exercise that ability. There are nearly limitless ways to improve your physical fitness but the important thing is getting into a routine that you enjoy and can stay consistent with. Whatever form of exercise you choose make sure the program is progressive and designed to get your heart rate up in a safe manner and create a training stimulus that will yield benefits*. Recent studies have found that one’s risk for death from any cause and from cardiovascular disease is reduced by more than 50% in those who are fit and being active (Warburton, 2006). Remember, if you don’t use it you lose it!
I have been training and racing in triathlon for almost 10 years and this means I use my heart a lot more than the average person due to the involvement of my cardiovascular system in this aerobic based sport. As an elite/professional level athlete I do a variety of sessions each week (up to 12 total during a few key weeks) and my heart is used in different ways each workout. Aerobic exercise sessions such as running or cycling are scientifically established methods of improving your cardiovascular health. Research shows that when a proper training routine is implemented everyone, including those with established cardiovascular disease, can benefit from aerobic training (Kemi OJ1, 2010). But again, the options for exercise are limitless – weight training, hiking, yoga, kayaking, cross-fit, etc. - find something you truly enjoy.
A diet based around whole, natural and organic (whenever possible) foods that includes lots of vegetables is where everyone should start – we all know this. But just as with training there isn’t one approach that is correct for everyone. Each of us have different micro and macro nutrient needs, and it can be a long term project to find which foods make us feel best and perform optimally. To train and race at my best I favour sweet potatoes and other starchy tubers and fruit as my staple carbohydrates. Some of my favourite fat sources are high quality olive oil, coconut products, avocados, macadamia nuts, and the fat contained in fish and grass fed meats.
One thing I avoid in my daily diet is refined sugars and flours, even my 5-year old son clearly knows the difference between the refined flour in shortbread cookies and complex carbohydrates in fresh local organic apples. There is a significant correlation between added sugar** consumption and CVD (Cardiovascular Disease) related mortality rates (Quanhe Yang, et al., 2014). One instance when I do consume refined sugar is during prolonged exercise that is of an intensity level and/or duration that I am significantly depleting stored glycogen (carbohydrates stored in the muscles and liver for the body to use during higher energy output activities – which is relative to the individual).
So the answer when it comes to diet is often quite simple – eat a variety of whole, natural foods daily. It can be a good idea to get some basic blood tests done to see what your levels are for micronutrients such as iron, vitamin D and B Vitamins. When consuming animal proteins strive to ensure you are purchasing humanely raised and pasture raised and/or grass fed animals.
We know that today’s food supply is not as nutrient dense as it was in the past. Although we have access to many more types of foods what is actually readily available to us are not always the healthiest options. Many people turn to supplements to help them optimize their levels of nutrients. When it comes to CV health a comprehensive and holistic approach can be the best option for many people. Some specific vitamins that are known to support the CV system are explained below and they can all be found in a Provascin a product offered by local company Purica.
Coenzyme Q10: A powerful anti-oxidant that helps protect your mitochondria. CoQ10 levels steadily rise after birth and peak at about age 20, then supplementation is widely recommended by most doctors and health care practitioners in order to keep levels optimal.
L-Carnitine: An amino acid that promotes energy production in the mitochondria, including areas where mitochondria is most dense – such as in the heart. L-Carnitine helps transport fatty acids into the mitochondria.
Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): A fat and water soluble anti-oxidant that helps regulate blood sugar which aids in the prevention of glycation. Glycation end products are known contributors to the stiffening and damaging of the arterial system.
Chaga: This medicinal mushroom boasts a host of health benefits. In the context of CV health it offers exceedingly high levels of antioxidants (50 times that of blueberries, and very high levels of SOD). This incredible fungus helps regulate cholesterol levels and among other things keep the immune system strong.
Alpha ketoglutaric acid: Naturally produced in the body, it plays a critical role in the energy production within our cells. It has a unique antioxidant effect in its ability to scavenge free ammonia in the blood (free ammonia levels rise following trauma, heart attacks, over-training physically, and from other stressors). When ammonia isn’t neutralized it can have a damaging effect on various organs, blood vessels and other tissues.
Finding your balance
It can be overwhelming to walk into a health food or supplement store and begin searching for supplements that will improve your CV health. Remember the heart is a muscle and muscles take time to adapt and change, therefore a preventative approach to long-term CV health is a sound approach for people of all ages and activity levels.
Start by making small changes to your diet and exercise routine – remember to do what works best for you! And if you aren’t sure what is best for you then seek advice and strive to become educated in this realm. The amazing thing about the human body is that it is never too late to make changes that will improve your health today and as you age.
*It is always a good idea to consult your physician before starting a new exercise routine or when increasing the intensity of your current program.
** “Added sugars” refers to sugars added to foods during processing. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruits not included as “added sugars”.
Adam O'Meara is a professional triathlete living in Victoria, BC, Canada. "Triathlon and nutrition are my passions – I eat, sleep and breathe this stuff. I have done a lot of things the hard way and for that reason I have continued to grow as an athlete and person. From epic training days to experimenting with all types of foods and dietary approaches I have run the gamut and can safely say I get stronger all the time by finding, testing and implementing ideas and methodologies to my ever evolving approach and journey to becoming an Ironman Champion."
1) Warburton, D.E.R., & Nicol, C.H., & Bredin, S.S.D. (2006, Mar.14). Health benefits of physical exercise: the evidence. Canadian Medical Journal Association, 174(6): 801-809. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.051351
2) Kemi, O.J., Wisloff, U. (2010, Jan-Feb. High-intensity aerobic exercise training improves the heart in health and disease. Journal of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and prevention. 30(1): 2-11. doi: 10.1097/HCR.0b013e3181c56b89.
3) Quanhe Yang, PhD1; Zefeng Zhang, MD, PhD1; Edward W. Gregg, PhD2; W. Dana Flanders, MD, ScD3; Robert Merritt, MA1; Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD4, (2014 Apr). Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA International Medicine. 174(4): 516-524. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563.