The heart is a muscle that needs training too

When athletes are described as “having a lot of heart” it often refers to their desire to compete even in the face of overwhelming adversity. In sports medicine, an “athlete’s heart” has an entirely different meaning.

The human heart is composed of four chambers: the right atrium, right ventricle, left atrium and left ventricle. The heart functions as a pump moving blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs where it becomes infused with oxygen. The left-sided chambers then jettison oxygenated blood throughout the circulatory system to other organs.

The left ventricle has the greatest demand and tends to become enlarged, creating a condition known as “left ventricular hypertrophy.”

If blood vessels become narrowed due to atherosclerosis, it requires more work for the heart to pump against resistance. The pumping mechanism must work harder and faster. That strain can lead to heart failure and death.

Like all muscles, the heart can be trained to increase in size and work more efficiently. A fitness regimen that will improve cardiac efficiency should consist of several forms of exercise:

• Aerobic activities such as running, rowing or cycling will maintain a high heart rate over an extended period of time.

• Resistance activities include weight lifting and other strength-oriented sports.

• Cross-training programs include a combination of aerobic and resistance activities. Boxers and other athletes who participate in sports where high levels of strength must be maintained over long periods of time rely heavily on these programs.

“The enlarged, more efficient athlete’s heart is a normal response to exercise training,” said Dr. Craig Denegar, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. Screening athletes before athletic participation can be challenging since an enlarged left ventricle can also indicate significant cardiac disease.

A regular exercise program can produce a heart that pumps more blood with less effort.

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