When some orchestra instruments are slightly out of sync, or when your car engine is not firing each cylinder at the right time, the effect is obvious: the more out of sync things are, the worse the performance becomes. Your heart also requires synchronization to work optimally. And like the orchestra and the engine, you can tune up your heart with proper maintenance.
Coordination is at the heart
The heart is made up of cells which have the ability to contract when they receive an electrical signal. If they contract at random times, the heart is just a quivering mass of cells that do nothing useful. Pumping blood requires the cells to contract at the same time to collectively cause the entire heart pump to contract and push blood effectively. The heart has a natural pacemaker, called the sinus node, that sends the electrical signal to the heart cells and tells them to contract.
Electrical signals work because heart cells have a negative charge on the inside of their cell membranes compared with the charge on the outside when they are at rest. The sinus node electrical impulses open small channels in the heart cell membranes which allow sodium to pass through, because sodium has a positive charge which the negative charge inside the cell membranes attracts. The sudden inrush of sodium causes the cells to release calcium to neutralize the charge, which also passes through channels in the cell membranes. This exchange generates electrical impulses which cause the muscle cells to contract. Once the contraction is complete, the calcium returns to its storage location, ready for the next sequence to occur.
The ability of each cell to contract fully is important to heart function, but even more so the coordination of those contractions is vital. The rather complex sequence means that coordination is not a simple task. Tuning up the heart “orchestra” is necessary for good heart function.
When things go wrong
Since both electrical signals and calcium processing are vital to getting a good strong heart contraction, there are a number of ways the heart can weaken. Obviously, the electoral impulses must be of the correct duration, strength, and timing. The calcium management of the heart is just as crucial. Calcium can “leak” from weak cells and not be where it should be during cell contraction, weakening the contraction. If enough calcium leaks, the heart cells can contract when they should be resting, without the electrical signal telling it to contract. This causes fibrillation in the heart chambers, and is one cause of heart attacks.
The heart tissue should also be supple. Stiff tissue resists powerful contractions, simply because the stiffness causes it to move less with a contraction. The stiffness occurs when proteins called “amyloids” build up in the heart tissue. This buildup can result from systemic inflammation which could be triggered by other diseases. These proteins can also interfere with the electrical signaling in the heart.
HIT the problem at the source
We know that exercise helps the heart, if for no other reason than the heart is muscle, and muscle strengthens with exercise. There is a special category of exercise called High Intensity Training (HIT) which is particularly effective at improving heart function.
Exercise produces free radicals. We consider free radicals to be dangerous, because they can damage healthy cells. This happens when they steal electrons from proteins, DNA, and cell membranes, making those molecules unstable. Free radicals are “hungry” for electrons, and we like antioxidants from good food which can neutralize the free radicals by sacrificing their electrons instead. But there is, ironically, a constructive side to free radicals because of the body’s response to them.
HIT produces a large quantity of free radicals quickly, which breaks down calcium channels in muscle cells, including heart muscle cells. This causes the cells to repair the channels, and in doing so they make them better than before. This better calcium management helps the muscle cells develop new and larger mitochondria, which are the “energy factories” for cells. This means the cells now have more energy for longer periods, and they can last longer without fatigue during the next exercise. HIT is ideal training because it is of a short enough duration to not overload the system, but long enough to trigger the rebuilding that improves the cell function.
Better calcium management means better effectiveness of all muscle tissue. The heart is especially helped because it doesn’t have to work as hard when the body is at rest, usually resulting in a lower at-rest pulse rate. Athletes typically have a lower resting pulse rate for this reason. The improved oxygenation of the whole body from a stronger heart also helps the heart itself, as part of the blood flow the heart pumps goes right back to the heart to feed it. A stronger heart helps itself as well as the rest of the body.
“Ejection fraction” measures how efficiently the heart pumps blood, which is normally around 50 to 70%. It measures the percentage of blood that is ejected, or pumped, out of the chambers of the heart. A good ejection fraction means the heart is effectively moving blood out of the heart with each pump. It is easily measured with an echocardiogram — a common way to check heart health. Since HIT improves the calcium management of the heart, the pumping action is more efficient, and the ejection fraction generally improves with HIT.
HIT has been shown in studies to improve all heart measurements. Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, published in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology, did various animal studies to determine HIT effects. One study showed that heart attack victims, where their ejection fraction had reduced to 20%, could be raised up to 35% fraction with 6 – 8 weeks of HIT, with each HIT duration lasting only 4 minutes. Another study determined that fibrillation problems were cut almost in half after consistent high intensity interval training. Also the high intensity training made the heart tissue more supple, reducing dangerous tissue stiffness. When the researchers looked at why these improvements occurred, they discovered genetic variances — micro RNA changes — that improved heart function. Epigenetics were at play again: genetic expression changes with environment, and the HIT environmental changes made the heart adapt through better genetic expression. This doesn’t mean “new genes” were created, but existing genes changed behavior to better handle the environment.
Exercise — both low and high intensity
A study of 90,211 people, over five years, at the University of Oxford, found that the reduction in cardiovascular disease risk was 49% to 59% in the study participants in the moderate intensity exercise group. Those who added vigorous intensity activity had a risk reduction from 54% to 63%. All exercise showed heart benefits, but the addition of HIT was significant.
Longer, lower intensity exercise is vital to build overall stamina and health. High intensity, short duration exercise gives a real punch to exercise effectiveness and should be added to brisk walks and other general exercise. HIT duration of just 1-3 minutes at 90% of your maximum capacity gives you a lot of value for such a short time spent, and you may go for longer if you are in shape to do so. So exercise regularly, and change the pace to get full benefit!
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
Movement is key in life. Without movement there would be no life. One of the foundational teachings at Total Health Institute over the past 35 years has been 7 Basic Steps to Total Health — and along with breathing, oxygen, water, food, and sleep, exercise plays a key in maintaining your cell health. The beauty of HIT exercise is that it stresses the heart and the body (eustress or good stress) which produces adaptive changes, shifting the cellular metabolism into repair and maintenance, which is key in longevity. Is it better to run 5 miles, or do 2-minute high intensity, high oxygen-debt exercise? Less is more.
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