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No less than any other muscle, our heart is molded by our choices and the world around us. Just as a regimen of sit-ups can sculpt your abs, exercise can shape the structure and performance of your heart at a cellular level.
Doctors call it “cardiac remodeling,” and they’ve known for some time that our hearts adapt to different forms of exercise in different ways, explains Rodrigo do Lago, MD, a board-certified interventional cardiologist at AdventHealth.
“Depending on the type of exercise you do, you’ll have different effects on the heart, and we’ve known that for a long time,” said Dr. do Lago.
In a new study, published last fall in Frontiers in Physiology, researchers compared the effects of running and swimming on the hearts of elite athletes. They found running changed their hearts in different ways.
The left ventricle — one of the heart’s four chambers, responsible for pumping oxygenated blood throughout the body — of runners were more efficient, moving more blood with each beat. Specifically, the ventricle filled with blood more efficiently during a phase of the heartbeat called “diastole,” in runners than in swimmers.
It’s important to note that these were elite athletes, Dr. do Lago says. They were singled out by researchers because the effects of their different forms of exercise would be magnified by years of training.
A typical runner may not see the same heart changes that these athletes did, but there are lessons in the study for all of us.
How Running Molds the Heart
The heart works on the same principles of any muscle: It adapts to meet the demands placed upon it. Ask more of your heart, and more will be given.
Consider the differing physiques of sprinters, who rely on explosive power, and long-distance runners, who need to endure. Their hearts behave different, too.
Compared to swimming, running can enhance diastolic function, meaning lots of blood moves through into the heart with every beat. This leads to the kind of efficiency gains researchers saw in runners in this study, Dr. do Lago says. This doesn’t mean swimmers should swear off the pool as the benefits of swimming are also unquestionable.
Cross-Train to Maximize Heart Benefits
If each form of exercise has a unique benefit to the heart, then it makes sense to mix them together.
“Running could make you better at swimming,” Dr. do Lago says. “Different exercises have different effects on the heart, and none of them are bad.”
This is part of the reason that people who take a break from their main sport should keep exercising in other ways. Because of the way it helps the heart become more efficient, running is likely to improve your basketball game or other athletic endeavor.
No Need to Be Elite
Though this study looked at elite athletes, the heart benefits of regular exercise are well known.
“Any kind of exercise will condition the heart, and walking and running are the type of exercise I recommend people try to improve heart efficiency,” Dr. do Lago says.
Running doesn’t just prepare the heart for other exercise, it helps decrease cholesterol and shed weight.
He recommends running with a heartbeat monitor and aiming for specific heart rate zones to improve the condition of your heart. (For a general guide about hitting your target heart rate, check out this American Heart Association post.)
How much should you run? Twenty to 30 minutes of brisk walking or running three to four times a week is the recommendation for heart disease prevention, Dr. do Lago says.
If it helps you to train for a goal, check out this upcoming list of events at Track Shack. But too much exercise before your heart is ready can be dangerous, so he recommends that you take it slow and ease into it. If you’re looking for tips to start an exercise program at any age, check out our guide.
The AdventHealth Cardiovascular Institute offers cutting-edge heart care as well as the expertise to help patients head off problems before they develop. And by partnering with runDisney and Track Shack, we hope to bring the pleasures and health benefits of running to more people.