Your heart is a muscle that sits in the centre of your chest right behind the breast bone and between the two lungs. It is not really located on the left side of the chest as is often believed, but the left ventricle of the heart that pumps the blood to your whole body sits slightly to the left, which may give that illusion. Your heart pumps about five litres of blood throughout your body every minute in order to bring nutrition, oxygen, hormones and electrolytes to every cell, and to carry waste and carbon dioxide away from the cells. Depending on your fitness, it can either pump a thimble full of blood with each beat, in which case it has to beat very frequently to get that five litres of blood around your body, or it can pump about a cup or 250 ml of blood with each beat if you are in good cardiovascular shape, using less beats to deliver the same amount of blood. As your heart becomes a stronger muscle and can pump more blood, your heart-rate per minute will decline. A very fit person may have a resting heart-rate in the low 50s, and an unfit person may have a resting heart-rate in the 90s. A stronger heart is a healthier heart, and that is why even patients that are recovering from heart attacks are usually given a walking program.
If you are out of shape, walking is an easy way to begin strengthening your heart, and it can be an enjoyable activity that is relatively easy to include in your life. Perhaps instead of taking the car, you can complete some errands on foot. Slowly build up your walking time to half an hour a day. If it is safe, walking after dinner can be very helpful with weight-loss, as it will reduce your blood sugar as well.
Once walking half-an-hour is not challenging, it is time to increase the intensity of the exercise to get continued improvements in heart strength. To know if you are working hard enough when exercising, you can calculate your heart-rate zone by subtracting your age from 220, which gives you your theoretical maximum heart-rate in beats per minute, and then taking 60% to 80% of that number. Now you know the lower and upper limit in heartbeats per minute that you should be exercising in order to condition your heart. (There can be huge variation in maximum heart-rates – if you want to know exactly what your max heart-rate is, ask whether your University physical education or kinesiology department does max testing.) Common forms of aerobic exercise that you can use for exercising your heart include jogging, cycling, swimming, inline skating, cross-country skiing, for example, but if you are injury-free, I would suggest setting up a weights circuit that uses the large muscle groups and do exercises such as multi-directional lunges, cable wood-chops, squat push-presses, pull-ups of some sort, and possibly a Swiss ball push-up prone pike or maybe burpees. By moving quickly between exercises you will keep your heart rate up AND maintain your muscle mass. Use a qualified personal trainer or CHEK Practitioner to teach you how to do the exercises correctly. Unless you are an athlete that is training for a cardiovascular event, I don’t think it is a great idea to do more than 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week. Too much cardio decreases muscle mass and immune function. For more info on this, see Want fat loss? Aerobic exercise alone is not the answer.
The easiest place to take your pulse is in your neck. Find your Adam’s apple and slide your fingers into the groove just to the side of it and feel for your pulse. Don’t press too hard as you have receptors in the carotid artery that will sense the pressure and slow your heart-rate down giving you a false reading. Count the number of beats you feel in 10 seconds and multiply by six to get the number of beats in a minute. You will get good at taking a tiny pause in your exercise to check your heart-rate. Or those heart-rate monitors are a fantastic tool to help you with your cardiovascular exercise program. As you get into better and better shape, you will have to work harder and harder to get your heart-rate into your zone. Congratulations – your fitness is improving!
Take your pulse daily in the morning before getting out of bed to learn your resting heart-rate. If you ever notice that your resting rate is 10 beats higher than usual, your body is fighting something, so don’t exercise that day, do what you can to reduce stress and nourish your body well, and you may avoid getting sick.
Chek, Paul; Golf Biomechanic’s Manual: Whole in One Golf Conditioning Chek Institute, San Diego, CA, 2001
Sherwood, Lauralee; Human Physiology, From Cells to Systems West Publishing Company, St. Paul, MN, 2006.
McArdle, Katch & Katch; Exercise Physiology, Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2006.