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What Happens to Your Heart When You Sit, Stress, Work Out? - menshealth.com

Your heart puts up with a lot. It’s your hardest-working muscle, beating an average of 100,000 times every day to get you through your Spiderman-pushup set, your digital cruise through your socials, and your oh-shit-that-was-due-yesterday moment. Though you might like to think it’ll keep pumping forever, some parts of your daily routine are extending its life (and yours) while others could be shortening it. Discover what your day is really doing to your heart—and how to make its job easier.

What happens to your heart when you sit down to work (and work)

When you’re sitting at your desk writing an email, scrolling through football stats, or catching up on Succession, your heart is on something like cruise control. It’s beating roughly 60 to 100 times a minute—less often if you’re fit, more if you’re not. The better shape you’re in, the larger your heart is, especially the right and left ventricles. These are the chambers that blood goes through before it’s shuttled to your lungs (right chambers) or the rest of your body (left chambers), to get oxygen and nutrients where they need to go. A more powerful heart can push out more blood with each pump. The increased efficiency means your body gets the same amount of blood with fewer beats, allowing the heart more time to rest between each one.

“When your heart’s beating at 30 beats per minute versus 150, there’s no change in how long it takes for the heart to pump blood. What changes is the rest period in between beats,” says Aaron Baggish, M.D., director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “At a lower heart rate, there’s simply much more time that the heart muscle is not activated, and that’s when the repair and recovery mechanisms are most effective.”

Just don’t assume that sitting is helping your heart get this rest. That position forces your heart to work harder to pump the blood back up from your feet, increasing your blood pressure. Staying planted for extended periods of time can cause serious problems over the long term, including stiffening of the artery walls, which can limit blood flow to your heart.

How to help your heart : Move your legs, says Bethany Barone Gibbs, Ph.D., a cardiovascular epidemiologist and head of the Gibbs Sedentary Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. “One of the amazing mechanisms our body has is called the muscle pump. Every time you flex the muscles in your calves and legs, it squeezes the blood back up the veins,” she says. “That’s a huge, huge load off your heart.” It’s probably fine to be seated for six to eight hours a day—“but not all at once,” Gibbs says. Try to move around at least once an hour. If that’s not an option, even just fidgeting or flexing your calves can give your heart a leg up.

What happens to your heart when you work out

“More, more, more” is the call your muscles are putting out to your heart during every workout. Your heart can deliver the extra energy and oxygen they need in two ways: It can pump more frequently, which increases your heart rate, or it can pump a larger quantity of blood each time it beats. Every time you exercise, both of those things happen, although which prevails depends on whether you’re focusing on cardio or strength.

Increased demand is one reason why exercise is so damn good for your heart. The greater volume of blood going in and out of the heart causes the muscle to stretch and develop tiny tears, like your other muscles do during training. “This then stimulates the repair process, which makes the heart grow,” Dr. Baggish says.

How it repairs itself and gets stronger hinges on the workouts you do—endurance athletes’ and lifters’ hearts look different. In a sport like distance running, the heart has to move larger quantities of blood to keep up with the legs’ demand, so it dilates to accommodate that. This is why pure endurance athletes have bigger hearts with thin walls.

In a strength sport like powerlifting, the heart doesn’t have to pump that much more blood. But it does have to withstand huge surges in blood pressure for short periods of time, thanks to the vigorous muscle contractions and bursts of adrenaline. You need thick heart walls to manage that, so that’s what it builds. It’s different from the unhealthy thickening of the heart walls that happens with many forms of heart disease. This mild bulking up is protective, and it’s reversible when no longer needed, Dr. Baggish explains. In fact, exercising decreases your blood pressure and heart rate for the rest of the day.

Your heart loves exercise so much, in fact, that people who are physically active have a 20 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease than people who don’t do any exercise. Aim to spread 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise throughout each week. Interval training is great, especially if you keep the interval periods to more than 60 seconds. Also include two or more weekly sessions of muscle strengthening.

How to help your heart : Do everything you can to keep your arteries clear and flexible. Not smoking is critical; how you eat is key, too. The Mediterranean diet pattern is one of the best ways to feed a healthy heart. That means filling up on fruits and vegetables, complex carbs from legumes and whole grains, and healthy fats (like those in salmon, nuts, and olive oil), and consuming a moderate amount of wine.

And, of course, exercise. If you have high blood pressure or plaques in your arteries, keep in mind what Dr. Baggish calls the exercise paradox. “You’re always more likely to have a bad event happen during exercise than when you’re at rest, but the more you exercise, the less likely you are to have a bad event overall,” he says.

What happens to your heart when you're stressed out

Major moments of stress—road rage, a fight with your partner—trigger your body to release chemicals including adrenaline and cortisol. These drive up your heart rate and blood pressure. That’s great for you when you’re working out, but terrible when you’re in a meeting. One reason: After you exercise, a bunch of biological repair mechanisms kick in to heal any damage caused by the extra strain on your heart. That doesn’t appear to happen after stress.

Your stress response also puts the squeeze on your heart via inflammation, a problem that can constrict the arteries at the exact time your system wants more oxygen-rich blood. This elevates blood pressure, which may cause any plaques in your arteries to become unstable and rupture, resulting in a heart attack.

Long-term stress, like a cutthroat workplace or a bad financial situation, does damage, too. “The wrong set of hormones bathe the heart,” says Clyde Yancy, M.D., chief of cardiology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. Those hormones instigate changes that promote hardening and narrowing of the arteries.

Help your heart : No surprise—cardiologists emphasize stress-reduction tactics (such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga, walking, and talking with understanding friends, family, or counselors). The key is recognizing when stress is rising and then doing something to break the cycle. Dr. Yancy says this lesson comes in part from studying people who live to be 100. “They meditate; they nap; they pray. They have ways of balancing stress so that it can be dissipated appropriately.” Best not to wait until you’re 100 to get started on that.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Men's Health.

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