Your Heart Doesn't Work Alone
“Over a period of seventy years, the heart beats one hundred thousand times a day, approximately forty million times a year – nearly three billion pulsations all told. It pumps two gallons of blood per minute – well over one hundred gallons per hour – through a vascular system about sixty thousand miles in length (over two times the circumference of the earth.” 
- S Schiefelbein
February is heart health awareness month, which means you’re probably at (or on your way to) the gym to do some cardio. Right? After all, we all know that cardio is necessary for a healthy heart. Everybody has heard this wisdom, whether we act on it or not. But with cardiovascular disease (CVD) as the #1 cause of death in the United States (1 in 3), can we safely say that doing cardio is having the heart benefiting effect we seek, or is there more to it?
Spoiler alert: there’s more to it.
Well of course, you say. There’s a heart healthy diet full of fiber and vegetables. There’s watching our weight and consumption of sugar, as obesity and diabetes are known contributing factors. There’s cholesterol medications to take, since doctors assure us that these will reduce our risk. And there are lifestyle factors to consider like getting enough rest and sleep, as well as feeling connected and supported by family and community. We have to watch our stress, stop smoking, and hydrate! In other words, we’ve got to be super adult about it.
I doubt there are many folks reading this who are surprised by any of this information. And it’s entirely possible you are doing some if not all of it. (If you’re doing all of it, I’d like to take adulting lessons from you. Call me.) So then why are so many people living with and dying of CVD? Is there a catch?
Spoiler alert: there’s a catch.
I fully acknowledge that there are many factors that contribute to a healthy heart, but because I’m me (movement nerd), I want to share some really useful information you may not have heard about the heart, cardiovascular system, and how we can optimize health and function through movement.
Your heart, while super important, is not the only system responsible for moving your blood to the cells. Your muscles are part of the job! When your muscles contract, it sends a message to the smooth muscles of your arterioles to relax and open (called vasodilation). This creates a drop in blood pressure that pulls the blood from the superhighways of the arteries to the smallest paths of the capillaries where the oxygen and nutrient delivery actually takes place. If the blood doesn’t get to the capillaries, it doesn’t get to the cells. (BTW- high blood pressure implies that there’s a lot of blood in the arteries. But if it’s all hanging out in the arteries, that means it’s not going to the capillaries. This is a problem for your heart, but really for your cells.)
So it’s all well and good that the heart pushes blood through the system, but the muscles are also designed to pull it! In the absence of this vasodilation and pulling force, the heart has to work really hard to try to force the blood into the tiny capillaries. Said another way, if we are sedentary, the heart has a Herculean task. But rather than going to the gym and whipping your already overworking heart into a frenzy in the name of keeping it strong, what if we worked on releasing the tension and create the alignment and innervation needed to use the muscles to draw the blood where it does the greatest good?
“But I do that when I do my cardio!” I hear you protest. Ah, but do you? Those muscles you are using are doing the job of pulling the blood, that’s true. But not to every place, just to itself. So the effect of exercise is to feed the muscles that are working, and not feed the muscles that aren’t. And if you have tight and sticky spots (which is all of us) those places are difficult to get blood to as well. So it’s possible that with your favorite exercise and positions you are overfeeding some cells while starving others. Not to mention that if you have constriction in the blood vessels already, pushing your heart rate up may be increasing the turbulence of your blood flow in a way that is not helpful, possibly even harmful.
So the idea that cardio is the only exercise to affect heart health comes from the sedentary culture we live in. If you’re not moving, the only thing that’s moving the blood is the heart. But does that mean you need a stronger heart, or is that perhaps our cue that we need a stronger, active, more aligned and uniformly developed body?
Okay then! says your very adult self. I understand that a strong heart is important, but it needs teamwork from my muscles in order for everything in my body to be well nourished. What do I do?
I applaud your adulting. You are really inspiring to me. But curiously, part of the solution may be to act like a kid. Let me explain.
Heart Healthy Move #1: Get out of your chair
And by that I don’t just mean stand up. Being sedentary is why the heart has to be the lone ranger of blood movement. But there’s a difference between going to the gym and moving more in your day. Exercise is good, but the movement we’re talking about here is low grade, varied, and constant. As the amazing and extremely quotable Bruce Lee said, “Consistency trumps intensity.” Limiting how much time you spend in any one-position means you are moving more! Fidget like a kid at school – move it around!
Heart Healthy Move #2: Get out of your chair shape
Most of us reading this are from the Western culture of chair sitting. Chair sitting takes on very similar body shapes and we do it for the majority of our time. We’ve also practiced it for the majority of our lives, so whether we like it or not our body parts are optimized for sitting. Said another way – your parts are shaped like a chair. These unchanging bends and angles create a situation in the arteries where turbulent blood flow and plaque tend to happen. These are problems for heart health, but our semi-permanent chair shape also means that when we get up and do other things (like going for our workout) we are unable to successfully change these lengths and angles in our body. So there’s increased strain and damage in the joints and tissues, and increased strain and damage in the blood vessels. We need to find ways to coax the body back to a more neutral alignment. Your body and heart will thank you. One way to do this? Get on the floor! Floor sitting and moving is not just for little kids, we adulting adults can do it too!
Heart Healthy Move #3: Mix up your moves
I mentioned earlier how working muscles draw blood flow, but only the ones that are working. If we are not varying our activities to include more and different muscles, you end up with overfed tissues next to starving ones. A balanced body this is not. This is often where injuries tend to occur, but it also means the starving cells are dying and that’s not good for anyone in the body.
Capillaries are where the magic happens. Capillaries are the delivery system of oxygen and nutrients to the cells. In fact, most cells in the body are within 50 micrometers from a capillary. The muscles we use have more capillaries than the ones we don’t use. But this is not a permanent state. As my hero (and teacher) Katy Bowman says, “You are how you move – the flow of your blood is guiding the architecture of your blood vessels – angiogenesis – growing more capillaries in high flow areas.” What that means is that by moving more and more of us, we are actually telling our body to make more capillaries. That feeds more cells, and it draws more blood out of the arteries (where the plaque accumulation and damage takes place) to the capillaries (where the nourishing happens). This is a win-win big time. So when you find yourself settling into your usual routine, get spontaneous! Be creative and add some zest and childish fun to your well-worn movement regime.
Heart Healthy Move #4: Micromanage
Did you know that your hands have 25% of the muscles in your body? And that your feet have another 25%? It’s amazing but true. These little muscles are tremendously important for our function, but with a whopping 50% of our musculature on the line, it’s also vitally important we get these guys in the game of moving blood and getting cells fed. And it means your hands and feet won’t be as cold. Seriously, this is a huge motivating factor for me. So if we’re making varied (varied, I said!) use of our hands and then add some fun for your feet, we’re on our way to a full body movement session! One of my favorites? Picking up different sizes and shapes of pebbles and rocks with my feet and putting them in a bucket. If there are kids around, you won’t be able to keep them away from this!
Heart Healthy Move #5: Breathe (more and differently)
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a HUGE nerd about breathing. I have the word ‘breathe’ tattooed on my wrist, and not just because I’m forgetful. So it’s no surprise at all that breathing would be in any plan I would make for heart health, but allow me a moment to give a few reasons why. First, blood is for moving oxygen. If your breath is inefficient there is not as much oxygen to move. This means your heart has to move everything faster to keep the blood coming to the lungs to pick up what it can. For the sake of your heart (and your cells) we want oxygen rich blood. But the act of breathing also massages the heart. Isn’t that cool? I mean, it works so hard, it deserves some love, right? And breathing is the heart’s bestie. So the movement of breathing diaphragmatically massages the heart itself as well as the abdominal aorta where it passes through an opening in the diaphragm. A tight, poorly functioning diaphragm could also create a choke point in the aorta, restricting blood flow and increasing pressure and turbulence. No good! And slow, restful breathing helps us manage stress, which affects our heart in negative ways. Need I say more? Now if you’ve ever watched a baby breathe, it is a fully relaxed, whole body event. Their belly expands and contracts, their chest rises and falls. There’s no restriction and none of the anxious neck and chest ‘sipping’ that so many of us adults have adopted. So practice some super relaxed, fully body breaths. Don’t be surprised if it makes you feel a little giddy at first!
Want more ideas and tips? Yay to you! Moves for a Healthy Heart is a 4 week class that explores all these things and more, and Movement for Better Circulation is a two hour workshop getting into the finer details of those capillaries and little muscles of the hands and feet. Visit the Mindbody scheduler to sign up! And I’m always open for private lessons to work with you one-on-one. Happy heart month!
Schiefelbein, S. The powerful river. In: Poole, R., ed. The Incredible Machine. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1986.
Benjamin EJ, Blaha MJ, Chiuve, S, et al. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics – 2017 Update: A Report from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2017; Jan 25, 2018.
Bowman, K. Move Your DNA: Expanded Edition. Propriometrics Press, 2017; p. 57
Bowman, K. Week 51 Lesson. EveryBody Biomechanics, 2016.
Vranich, B. Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14 Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health. St. Martin’s Press, 2016; p. 15, 24