Boost Heart Health by Training Like an Athlete

May 20, 2021

If you’ve ever watched a marathon runner and marveled over their endurance and athletic prowess, you’re not alone. Athletes train for hours to prepare for a game, race or event because their hearts must be in peak shape to perform.

You can improve your cardiac health even if you’re not a pro athlete. Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to boost your heart health.

How Your Heart Functions During Exercise

Your heart must pump blood at a rate sufficient to maintain a supply of oxygen and other nutrients to the muscles, brain and other organs for the body to function properly.

As you begin your workout, your heart will pump blood faster and stronger, which quickly transports oxygenated blood to your muscles. Practice makes perfect. The heart becomes more efficient with regular exercise, helping oxygen flow throughout the body much faster, and increasing performance and endurance.

Aerobic Conditioning Trains an Athlete’s Heart

Athletes undergo aerobic conditioning — the use of continuous movement of muscles — to strengthen and train their heart and lungs to pump blood more efficiently. Aerobic exercises such as running and swimming allow more oxygen to reach the working muscles, heart and other organs in the body quickly.

No matter the sport, athletes don’t just engage in cardio exercises. Strength training builds stronger muscles to support the joints and improves cardiac health.

Doctors and athletic trainers use several methods to measure cardiac performance in professional athletes. The VO₂ max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is a common measurement used to establish the endurance of an athlete before or during exercise. This measurement indicates how much oxygen the athlete is absorbing and using during exercise.

Prior to the VO₂ max test, a person is outfitted with a face mask that is connected to a machine that analyzes their respiratory rate and volume along with the concentration of oxygen inhaled and carbon dioxide exhaled during exercise. A heart strap is worn to measure heart rate while the person exercises, typically on a treadmill or stationary bike.

VO₂ max is reached when a person’s oxygen consumption remains steady, despite an increase in exercise intensity. VO₂ max values can be used to establish a baseline fitness level before starting a training program and is typically tracked over the course of time to monitor progress.

Generally, athletes have much higher VO₂ max scores than the average person. A study found that increasing your VO₂ max can improve the use of oxygen in the body and maintain health and physical fitness as you age.

Exercise for Better Heart Function

You don’t need to be a pro athlete with fancy equipment and full-time trainers to improve your cardiovascular health. Heart-healthy activities that can increase your heart function include:

High-intensity interval training (HIIT). This is bursts of intense aerobic exercise for 20 to 30 seconds, a short 10-second break and then 20 to 30 more seconds of the exercise again, over the course of several minutes.

Variety. Don’t engage in the same exercises over and over. Switch up aerobic activities over time (or even in a single workout) to prevent injury and over-training.

Strength and resistance training. Lifting weights isn’t just about building muscle. Strength training can also improve heart functionality and heart strength. Aim to strength train once or twice a week to help improve cardiovascular health.

Talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise program for advice on the best exercises for you as well as how often you should train to improve cardiovascular health.


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