Several weeks ago I was on the treadmill doing a new cardio routine that involved inserting five one-minute interval spikes into my thirty-minute session. For the uninitiated, an interval is a short segment of time where one increases their intensity to boost heart rate. If you are biking on the road, you can go faster or ride up a hill. If you are walking or running on a treadmill, you achieve this by going faster or increasing the elevation. How much the intensity should increase over the normal “cruising” rate has been the subject of many books and a myriad of scholarly articles. There are many reasons why I’ve added intervals to my cardio routines, including:
- Increases the strength of my heart by allowing it to pump more blood with each beat
- Improves the speed and power components of my athletic performance
- Boosts the amount of calories I burn during the cardio workout
- Tricks my brain into releasing chemicals that tell the cells in my body they are younger than they really are
The most important benefit of pushing my heart rate close to red zone RPMs is one I never thought of, but may be the one that ultimately saves my life. Long story short, while doing my new interval cardio routine on a treadmill, I felt tightness in my chest and experienced an irregular heartbeat. Yes…I was pounding it up a fifteen degree incline at 4.2 MPH. To achieve this level of intensity, I pushed the old ticker to 151 beats per minute, which is 93% of its maximum. The challenge was drill-sergeant-at-Parris-Island-screaming-at-a-new-recruit difficult…but I did it.
The irregular heartbeat and tightness in my chest served as a canary in the coal mine, as it prompted me to seek medical attention. My father died at 52 of a heart attack caused by atherosclerosis. I did not want to suffer the same fate at 58. After consulting with my physician, two days later I was having a treadmill stress test under the supervision of a cardiologist. Running shirtless up a thirty degree grade with EKG leads and blood pressure cuffs tethered to a large computer console, I felt like Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.
After the test, the cardiologist told me “…You have the heart, lungs and muscles of an Olympian, but your arteries are from John’s Bargain Store. There are blockages. How many arteries are involved and the level of occlusion need to be determined. But don’t worry. Problems inside the heart are a big deal, what you have are some clogged pipes…it’s just plumbing.”
I told my doctor I felt betrayed by my body, as I have taken great care if it with lots of exercise and healthy food…hey…I’m a personal trainer and lifestyle coach…so I walk the walk. He comforted me by saying that “…if I weren’t in such good condition, this would have happened ten years ago at a much lower level of exertion. Who knows what would have happened then?”
Anyway, I am scheduled for a PET scan of the heart, which will help determine what to do next. I’ll keep you posted if you keep me in your thoughts and prayers.