Walk or Die


“Psst buddy,” the voice said, “Start walking or die.” That voice might not come from a street punk but from your family doctor.

In the United States, Veterans Affairs studied more than fifteen thousand men to see if there was a link between cardio capacity and death. In a nutshell there was. The better the cardio capacity, the lower the chance of death.

The leader of the study, Professor Kokkinos and his associates tested more than six thousand African-American men and almost nine thousand Caucasian men for a period between May 1983 and December 2006. The subjects were put on a treadmill and encouraged to walk until tired or showing symptoms of distress. The subjects were followed for the next 7.5 years and death rates were tracked.

The study grouped subjects into four categories from “low fit” to “very highly fit” depending on their cardiac capacity. Men in the “very highly fit” category were seventy percent less likely to die.

Why does walking/jogging/cycling help? Regular cardio exercise will lower your weight, improve your blood pressure, reduce your stress, and more. The heart is like any other muscle. Training it will improve its capacity do to work, to pump blood around your body. One of the places that the blood goes is back to the heart.

As you train the heart, it adapts. Within your heart are coronary collaterals, tiny blood vessels that are no thicker than a fine hair. Normally they carry little or no blood. However, if the coronary arteries start to narrow the collaterals respond by gradually increasing in size and number. This process is called collateralization. In effect the heart grows new coronary artery branches to move blood around a narrowed segment. It’s a natural bypass, one without the zipper scar down the front of your chest.

Animal studies have shown that regular exercise is a great stimulus to collateralization. Furthermore, this collateralization has been shown to improve survival after an experimentally induced heart attack (in animals). (If they start human induce heart attacks, I have a long list of people I would like to volunteer.)

What Exercises help?

Anything that gets you up and moving will help the heart. This includes walking, jogging, bike riding. Given the human form, exercise that uses the legs or the entire body will tend to improve cardiac health faster than those that put a premium on the upper body, such as swimming, or rowing.

Bored with walking? Try dancing, golf (without the cart) or tennis. If you have never tried square dancing, you’ll find it works for both the mind and the body as you try to remember all those calls while moving at a brisk pace.

How much?

They used to suggest five days at 50 minutes per day. However, the latest research suggests that the sweet spot is less effort than that.

Longer, less frequent sessions of aerobic exercise have no clear advantage over shorter, more frequent sessions of activity. Any type of aerobic activity contributes to cardiovascular fitness. In fact, even divided “doses” of activity — such as three 10-minute walks spread throughout the day — offer aerobic benefits. What’s most important is making regular physical activity part of your lifestyle.

In the Copenhagen City Heart study, researchers identified and tracked 1,098 healthy joggers and 413 healthy (but sedentary) non-joggers over a span of 12 years. Logged hours of jogging, frequency, and the participant’s perception of pace were all record.

The findings were surprising, if not a little worrisome. Fast-paced runners and people who jog strenuously and frequently were just as likely to die as those who didn’t jog at all. The optimal frequency of jogging was no more than three times (about 150 minutes) per week.

So aim for about 150 minutes a week. Ten minutes after ever meal will get you there with ease, and let you take the weekend off.

Optimum Training range

For best results you want to walk fast enough to get your heart’s attention and slowly enough that you don’t run out of breath. Walk fast enough to break out a sweat, but not so fast that you can’t talk.

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