I’ve been thinking about this one all month. Which, I guess is only about 12 days so far, but, I have little notes all over my desk. Remember to mention this, bookmark that, etc. In other words, this post isn’t going to be under 500 words.
February has been declared heart health month by the American Heart Association (AHA). Earlier in the month, I got to go to our local elementary school and teach yoga to the fourth grades, so I emphasized poses that stretched and opened the heart space. At the end of class, the regular teacher made announcements about Jump Rope for Heart, which was the next special program they were participating in and an activity that is good for strengthening the heart. Here is a question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, stretching or strengthening?
Usually, when we think about heart health, we associate it with “cardio” something like jumping your heart out for an hour, or for those that go to gyms, it’s the tread mill, stair climber, aerobics class. Maybe you run outdoors. Or you might be a swimmer. But the idea of cardio is that your heart has to work hard, that it has to achieve a certain percentage of maximum output, which you check from a chart on the wall or an app on your phone. We like numbers: calories burned, VO2max, miles or laps completed. Maybe I should clarify what I mean by “we” here, because my grandmother, who had to raise a family of 5 during the Great Depression, liked other numbers: quarts of tomatoes put up, pounds of meat in the freezer, dozens of cookies in the oven. Her idea of heart health was to simply stay fed with whatever is at hand and your heart will keep ticking.
My grandmother’s diet,which included sugar, saturated fats, red meat, and processed vegetables (although the processing was done at home), would not be declared “heart healthy” by the AHA. I never saw my grandmother drink a green drink, nor did she even once consider vegetarianism, and yet she lived past 90. So did my great grandmother. Neither ever, ever did a cleanse. And I also never saw either of those two women run. Never. Not a scientific test group, I know. But still.
There are changes in how we perceive healthy eating. This morning, NPR had a report on whole fat milk, a real no-no to women of my generation. The naturopath that I work with recommends saturated fats. I have friends that are paleo eaters and those that swear by veganism. I once saw a Facebook post on paleoveganism…so here is the other question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, the diet of my grandmother or a specialty health diet determined by the latest nutritional advice?
And although I am going to ponder those two questions, I’m not going to answer them. Really, it is impossible. If you know about the scientific process, you know that there are just too many variables within humanity to say anything for sure about how to exercise or how to eat. But, this much I can say for sure, because the science is sound and the logic is pretty clear: nothing works well under pressure. (Not even pressure cookers. I remember my mom’s blowing its little spinning thingy off many times and put a hole right in our kitchen ceiling.)
If you really want to help your heart, take off the pressure. Whether that pressure comes from tight muscles surrounding it, overworking the heart muscle itself, poor circulation in the extremities, constant worry about diet, or unresolved stress in your life (watch this TED Talk for cool insight to stress). Any scientific experiment starts with a laboratory full of equipment. You need to understand how the basic set up works. Your body is your lab. Do you understand, really, how the equipment works? Although it far less complicated than understanding the role of cholesterol in your body (which a surprising number of people claim to know), the basic functioning of the human laboratory is pretty misunderstood.
I’m going to set up the experiment. I need the following items: blood, lymph, and electricity. I’ll put the blood in about a million test tubes and the lymph in the same amount test tubes. I need a way to get blood in and lymph out–the electricity will do nicely, trading one test tube of blood for one of lymph. I need to have good alignment of the test tubes, too. If I don’t set it up right, I’ll end up with too much of either blood or lymph in an area. The pressure in that area will increase. Test tubes will start to crash, maybe even break, spilling blood or lymph all over my lab. And then I’ll have to clean up the mess. The mess will resemble high blood pressure and inflammation. If there is breakage of the test tubes containing blood, the mess will be a problem of malnutrition, since the blood isn’t getting to where it needs to be. If a test tube containing lymph breaks, the mess will be more of a toxic problem, since lymph carries waste products. What matters in this experiment is how I moved the test tubes around. All of them, since any one of them can start to create havoc in my lab.
In yoga, we call the flow of blood, lymph, and electricity “prana.” In a human performance lab, the terms are more technical, but essentially the gist is this: you have to flow. All of you. No test tube is unnecessary and none are more important than the others.
So what is better, strength or stretching? Well, does all of your body move with ease while walking or standing? Do you have any tension in your body? That is an area of pressure. Blood is not going to flow well into a tight area or an underused one. Regarding diet, most likely in our society you are getting enough nutrition in your mouth, but your cells might still be starving. If you don’t move the nutrients around to all your parts, then the question of nutrition becomes moot. Can you move your little toe? No? Then even if you drank the best green drink this morning, your pinky toe is still starving. Besides your pinky toe, what else haven’t you moved lately? Anything that isn’t moving with ease is increasing the pressure gradient for your heart. And even if you do the hardest cardio workout ever, if you do it in the same position you spend the rest of your day in, you are just increasing the pressure on your heart muscle and not actually feeding the other muscles of your body. Crash.
What about clean diets? No matter how careful you are to remove toxins from your diet, cells are constantly metabolizing within your body and metabolism produces waste. The lymphatic system is responsible for removing waste and it works without a central beating heart, depending solely on the electricity of localized muscular movement. I repeat, no heart. The good news is that a large number of lymphatic drainage points are in your groin and armpit, so if you are extending your legs and arms regularly, there is no buildup of toxic waste. Oh. Wait. You sit a lot and then go to spinning classes, metabolizing a days worth of calories, but never fully extending your limbs behind you. The bad news is that a build up of lymph generally or locally (in the nodes) creates a toxic, acidic atmosphere which will alter cellular reproduction at that site. Crash and burn.
This is sort of a downer post. But I’m going to end it with happy news! To maintain heart health, cellular health, and overall functioning of your body, move in different ways throughout the day so that your test tubes are aligned and being moved in and out of each area of your lab, err, body. It really is easier than going to the gym for a kick-your-butt-training session. Or learning how to ferment your own ghee. Are you sitting? Stand up and stretch. Kneel for a while at your desk. Go out for a walk and focus on reaching back with your arms and legs–you are doing extensions and draining those lymph nodes of toxins! Want to improve your cardiovascular health? Move your toes. You can do that while you are sitting. You just need to take your shoes off. You don’t have to move harder, you just need to move more. In fact, moving harder might cause a crash in an area already under pressure.
All your test tubes are very important to your human lab. Notice if any areas are under pressure and avoid a crash simply by moving the blood in and lymph out. You provide the needed electricity just by moving your muscles. You don’t need a special app, an expensive gym membership, or the latest advice from the AHA. In fact, 1500 hundred words of this post could have been two: move more.