Wherever you go, go with all your heart.– Confucius (551 – 479 BCE)
For select endurance athletes, having a big heart is more than a metaphor. Intensive training tends quite literally to increase the size of the physical heart, as Dr. John Mandrola – a cardiac electrophysiologist (specializing in heart rhythm disorders) points out:
Our hearts adapt to the increased demands of intense training by growing larger, contracting stronger, and more robustly responding to adrenaline. At the same time, skeletal muscles learn to extract more nutrients from the increased flow of blood. We call this fitness.
When Too Much ain’t Enough
However, current medical research is showing that the “too much of a good thing” rule even applies to exercise. Studies suggest that exercising obsessively—also known as exercise addiction—can lead to a phenomenon known as “athlete’s heart,” the medical term referring to the pathological enlargement of the heart that may occur as a result of engaging in strenuous exercise over a long period of time. Hard-core athletes, as well as those who take up sports seeking better health, weight loss and longevity, may be unwittingly placing themselves at greater risk of heart conditions including inflammation, calcification, arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation and flutter, tachycardia, hypertrophy, and coronary artery disease. So while an increase in the size and strength of the heart muscle is, in a sense, a natural response to prolonged cardiovascular exercise, it can also lead to problems down the road.
The good news is that ‘athlete’s heart’ is not the inevitable consequence of training hard. Intensity and rest modifications, effective medicines, and safe supplements are all proven treatments that protect the heart.
A Heart Fortified Within Itself
While it is certainly true that running and other endurance activities can lead to a wide range of health benefits, our overall health is also influenced by how we lead our lives, both at home and at work. We’re all familiar with how much stress can arise due to competing demands on our time and attention. The time we spend running can help counteract these tensions by putting them in perspective and making them manageable. Somewhere we know whenever our training regimen is putting too big a squeeze on our time. The resulting stress may actually overshadow the health benefits. If that is the case, it may mean restructuring or downsizing our training.
The physiological effects of positive emotions such as caring, compassion or appreciation for someone or something can go a long way in helping people reduce their risky training behaviors. In effect, these heart-brain interactions cohere and soften the heart which, by processing the good feelings, circulates positive information throughout the entire body. All this adds up to a heightened sensitivity to what works for us, the basic self-awareness so important to optimal health, performance and enjoyment.
In Search of the Miraculous
Modern science is increasingly confirming the claims of Confucius and many other ancient Chinese sages that a deep connection exists between the (spiritual and physical) heart, the mind and the brain. The information-rich fields of Emotional Physiology and Neurocardiology offer valuable contributions to the conversation.
The heart’s electrical field is 100 times stronger than the brain’s electrical field. And the heart’s magnetic field is a whopping 5,000 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field!
Why is this relevant? Because it confirms that engaging life with the heart is much more powerful—in terms of the capacity to actually affect the electromagnetic structure of the body and world—than thinking with the brain alone is. Coherent heart-based emotions such as appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness, care and compassion can actually change the molecules and atoms of the physical body as occur in various healing miracles.
Now that’s motivating!
Note: The original post was entitled, “Zen and an Athlete’s Heart.”