Exercise and the Cardiovascular System

We all know that exercise is good for the heart. Yet each year, a few individuals die of sudden cardiac arrest while shoveling snow, running, or engaging in some other strenuous activity. The explanation for this apparent paradox is that exercise is good for the heart — but only if it is a regular part of life.

Physiological responses to intense aerobic exercise generally increase blood flow, and therefore oxygen delivery, to active muscles. In muscles, vasodilation opens more capillaries. At the same time, vasoconstriction diminishes blood flow where it is not immediately needed, such as to the digestive tract. Blood flow, however, is maintained in the brain and kidneys, which require a steady stream of oxygen and nutrients to function. Respiratory movements and skeletal muscle activity increase venous return to the heart. As venous return to the heart increases, ventricular walls stretch, stimulating them to contract with greater force. Heart rate increases as well.

The cardiovascular system adapts to exercise as a way of life. The conditioned athlete experiences increases in heart pumping effi ciency, blood volume, blood hemoglobin concentration, and the number of mitochondria in muscle fibers. All of these adaptations improve oxygen delivery to, and utilization by, muscle tissue.

An athlete's heart typically changes in response to these increased demands and may enlarge 40% or more. Myocardial mass increases, the ventricular cavities expand, and the ventricle walls thicken. Stroke volume increases and heart rate decreases, as does blood pressure. To a physician unfamiliar with a conditioned cardiovascular system, a trained athlete may appear to be abnormal!

The cardiovascular system responds beautifully to a slow, steady buildup in exercise frequency and intensity. It does not react well to sudden demands—such as a person who never exercises suddenly shoveling snow or running 3 miles. Although sedentary people have a two- to sixfold increased risk of cardiac arrest while exercising than when not, people in shape have little or no excess risk while exercising.

How much exercise is enough to benefit the cardiovascular system? To achieve the benefits of exercise, the heart rate must be elevated to 70% to 85% of its "theoretical maximum" for at least half an hour three times a week. You can calculate your theoretical maximum by subtracting your age from 220. If you are eighteen years old, your theoretical maximum is 202 beats per minute. Seventy to 85% of this value is 141 to 172 beats per minute. Some good activities for raising the heart rate are tennis, skating, skiing, handball, vigorous dancing, hockey, basketball, biking, and fast walking.

It is wise to consult a physician before starting an exercise program. People over the age of thirty are advised to have a stress test, which is an electrocardiogram taken while exercising. (The standard electrocardiogram is taken at rest.) An arrhythmia that appears only during exercise may indicate heart disease that has not yet produced symptoms. ■

Other factors that increase the flow of blood into the right atrium, and thus elevate the central venous pressure, include increase in blood volume or widespread venoconstriction. An increase in central venous pressure can lead to peripheral edema because the resulting higher capillary hydrostatic pressure favors movement of fluid into the tissues. Clinical Application 15.7 discusses the effects of exercise on the heart and blood vessels.

H What is the function of the venous valves?

How do skeletal muscles affect venous blood flow?

How do respiratory movements affect venous blood flow?

What factors stimulate venoconstriction?

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Essentials of Human Physiology

Essentials of Human Physiology

This ebook provides an introductory explanation of the workings of the human body, with an effort to draw connections between the body systems and explain their interdependencies. A framework for the book is homeostasis and how the body maintains balance within each system. This is intended as a first introduction to physiology for a college-level course.

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