The HeartSense Helpathon: Second in a series

Helping Each Other to Good Health:  Preventing Heart Disease

Brian Mossop trained to be a neuroscientist but then decided that writing about science was more fun and quickly became a well-known science writer.  If there is a genetic predisposition to athletic pursuits, Brian must have one because he started competing in sports as a preschooler and is a self-described “exercise fanatic”.  Whether or not he has a genetic drive to pursue athletics, he also has days when that motivation to exercise is just not there.  But with a family history of heart disease and experiencing what can happen to your body when you don’t exercise and eat right, he pushed forward with an intense exercise program, choosing running and Crossfit to keep his heart healthy. 

Running, biking and walking are all forms of aerobic exercise that increase your heart rate, build your heart’s endurance, and help muscle function in your legs and arms.  Crossfit is a program that includes resistance exercises and strength training that target muscles, building muscle endurance and the ability to respond quickly and more powerfully.  People with controlled heart failure can benefit from both aerobic and resistance exercise, but please avoid straining with heavyweight lifts and learn correct breathing patterns when doing resistance exercises. We will discuss in more detail strength training for people with heart problems in a future article in this series.

I am delighted to bring you this adventurous, disciplined commitment to healthy living in Brian Mossop’s guest blog post below. 

Why I Run

I’ve been a competitive athlete for as long as I can remember.  Um, wait, scratch that.  See, there was this period during the end of grad school and the start of my first postdoc, when I was completely burned out, and fell into some bad habits.  But let’s start at the beginning.

I started participating in organized sports at an early age, around age 4 or 5, according to my very proud mother, who beams with excitement when I ask her to recall sports stories from my childhood.  Personally, I think my parents just got tired of my incessantly asking them if I could play tee-ball, so they signed me up thinking my interest wouldn’t last very long.  But the trend continued, all the way through college, where I was a short distance sprinter – 50m, 100m, 4×100 relay – at Lafayette College.   

I stayed fairly active for my first years of grad school, but soon the humdrum of lab life caught up with me.  It started innocently enough, bailing out on a workout or two during the week when I just couldn’t muster the energy to change into exercise clothes.  Next thing I knew I was about 30 pounds overweight and none of my clothes fit.  I forgot where the gym was located.  My LDL cholesterol and blood pressure were in bad shape, both on the verge of requiring pharmaceutical intervention.

But the depressing blood work results, not to mention my expanding mid-section, lit the fire under me.  Several of my maternal uncles had multiple heart attacks – one of them was at the tender age of 35 when the first one hit – and this was one family tradition I didn’t care to follow.  

Instead of drowning my sorrows in pints of Ben & Jerry’s – an all-too-familiar trend during those times – I decided to start doing something crazy: road racing.

Being a sprinter, I had never done much long-distance work.  In the past, making it around the 400m track just once was an accomplishment for me.  Plus, my closest friends from college are hard-core distance runners.  And by that, I mean they are really, really fast.  Like a 2:30ish marathon fast.  Top 50 in the Boston Marathon fast.  Fast fast.  You get the point.  So getting into this road racing business was a bit intimidating.  I didn’t even tell my best friends what I was doing until shortly before my first race.  

I started out slow, running just twice per week, a sluggish mile or two at a time.  Week by week runs became easier, and I found myself starting to push myself to go further, and faster.  I started watching what I ate, making smarter choices on trips to the refrigerator.  As the months passed, I began feeling better than ever and had wrangled my waistline back to its proper diameter.  My annual physical revealed more good news, as my cholesterol and blood pressure were now held in check.

As I got into better shape, I once again started feeling the familiar, competitive itch.  I was then running about 25+ miles per week, and I thought signing up for an organized event would be a great way to feed my enduring desire to race.  Several half-marathons later, I still was unable to quell my inner adrenaline junkie.  No matter what kind of running workouts I did – 800m repeats, tempo runs, fartlek, you name it – I still couldn’t feel that rush of blood and emotion that is a sprinter’s life force.  

A co-worker told me about a new workout program she had gotten hooked on, called Crossfit.  Though I was reluctant to shelve the free-weight routines I’d been relying on since high school for what seemed to be just another fad, I decided to give it a fair chance.  

The Crossfit idea was simple enough: go to the website to find out the Workout of the Day, and do it.  The exercises were a mix of things like plyometrics, Olympic lifts, and bodyweight exercises (pushups, pullups, etc).  The amount of weight to use and the number of repetitions to perform were prescribed on the website for each exercise.  Contrary to most weight training methodologies, you got “better” by completing the workout faster, instead of boosting the amount of weight used, which gave a nice cardio burn throughout the session.  

At the time, Crossfit gyms were springing up all over San Francisco.  A new breed of trainers had turned old, converted warehouses into places where people could meet and work out together, making weight training into a team sport.  

For me, exercise has been a way to actively battle my family history of heart disease, while simultaneously holding my stress levels, and possibly even my cognitive ability, in check, as studies have shown the immense value of voluntary exercise on the brain.

It took quite a bit of trial and error for me to find the exercise routine that worked for me.  In the months before I got hooked on road racing and Crossfit, I tried it all: racquetball, swimming, the list goes on.  And so when I hear people become quickly discouraged with their New Year’s resolutions to get in shape, I try to help them discover the many, many ways to get the heart rate up.  

Getting back into a regular exercise routine was not easy.  I struggled quite often.  And I still have days where I don’t feel like going for a run.  But one thing to remember on the dark and dreary days: you’re not alone.  Every athlete, from newbies all the way up the chain to the elites, struggles with motivation from time to time.  

When my motivation tank is running on fumes, I usually do one of two things.  First, I’ll call up a friend and schedule some time for a nice, slow run with a running buddy.  Whether it’s a quick lunchtime trot, or a long weekend run, the small talk with your running buddy will make the time, and distance goes by much faster.  Second, I’ll start tracking my runs online using an exercise log like Running AHEAD, now in beta testing, or a cool gadget like Nike+.  These are relatively inexpensive, and provide a great way to keep tabs on my progress, and see how I’m improving each week.

Finding the exercise that’s right for you trigger those dopamine reward circuits in your brain, and will, eventually (I promise you!) turn exercise from a measly chore into your favorite hobby.