Exercise Improves Heart Health
Exercise improves my heart health. That is a rather big deal for me because I have experienced some major heart issues.
Long-distance running was my passion throughout my high school and college years and beyond. I logged thousands of miles on the roads, paths, and beaches from the age of fourteen. I earned an athletic scholarship to run track and cross-country at Pepperdine University. I ran a 3:07 marathon in 1968.
I loved running, even the pain.
I Never Expect Heart Problems
As I approached middle age, I assumed that running ensured that I would never have heart problems. All the runners I knew were healthy and thriving.
However, I had read enough to know that I could face joint deterioration down the line, especially in my knees.
I never suspected that I would have heart trouble. If exercise improves heart health, then I must have a strong heart. At least, that is what I told myself.
But, in 2002, I lay on the floor of a restaurant in Benin, West Africa, and I could not get up. I felt extremely lightheaded. Every time I attempted to stand, I began feeling like I was about to pass out. The workers saw me struggling to get up and tried to help me. But, I feared standing up. Finally, the restaurant owner called a doctor.
Finally, they helped me into a car and drove me to a local hospital. Unfortunately, they told me I was having severe heart problems. After they stabilized me, I flew home to the USA to be checked out by heart specialists. They performed several tests and a not-so-beneficial roto-bladation of an artery.
Finally, they informed me that I needed triple coronary bypass surgery.
I was shocked. I never expected to hear that after all those miles of running.
So, they sawed down the center of my sternum and pried opened up my chest. Then the surgeons carved vessels out of my left leg and grafted around the three clogged arteries.
Recovery was complicated—just a few steps at first. Then, I began shuffling around the block. Finally, after about three weeks, I began to walk and jog about a mile. I never did get back to my old running form, but I improved to running three miles or a little over.
My cardiologist told me that I would most likely be dead if I had not been a runner. I had a strong heart, but my arteries were genetically prone to be clogged by calcium. But, convinced that exercise improves heart health, I was determined to continue running.
However, emotionally I was pessimistic about returning to running races. So, I never did.
My knees started giving me a lot of pain in my early 60s. I had been wanting to start cycling. So, I bought a bike and began cycling through our little city, putting in maybe twenty miles a week.
I Turned to Cycling
After a couple of months, I met a man who introduced me to a local cycling club, Texoma Cycling Club. What a Godsend! By riding with the club, I increased my mileage and speed. My overall fitness improved.
Eighteen years have passed since the heart surgery. During those years, my cardiologist placed six additional stents in various heart arteries. But, even with that, I keep telling myself, ‘exercise improves heart health, and cycling improves heart health.’
I am now 72, and for ten years now, I have been increasing my distance and speed. Nowadays, I manage between sixty and one hundred miles on the saddle every week. My average speed is 13 – 16 miles per hour. I count that as a real accomplishment, and I feel like an athlete again – all be it an older athlete.
However, the actual cycling after bypass surgery is not the most significant accomplishment or miracle.
About five years ago, I asked my cardiologist how long the veins they grafted onto my heart would last. He said they are already entirely closed – occluded.
He went on to tell me the extensive work my heart is doing during my rides forced blood into capillaries which grew into what they call collateral arteries. Those new arteries took on the workload of the occluded veins. He called it a “do-it-yourself bypass.”
Without a doubt, exercise improves heart health. Taking up cycling has dramatically improved my heart health.
How long will I live? I have no idea. What I do know is – I am in better health than I was ten-twenty years ago. Cycling is the major contributor to my heart health.
I am living proof that cycling improves heart health.