The Muscle of Life

Extending Lives

By Ross Macdonald

Most of us consider the main organ in the body to be the heart, so let’s start there. The heart has its own muscle, alone, distinct and separate from all your other 200 or so muscles. Exercise increases the muscles’ demand for oxygen, which in turn causes the heart to grow and pump more blood, while at the same time the arteries open more little “arteries” to feed the muscles. It does not take a lot to keep the heart healthy, just daily, continuous exercise—and that does not mean in a gym or running the marathon. It has been found that Europeans get more of this simple moving around type exercise than Americans (one in three of whom is obese).

Recent studies show that walking to the store, walking home from work, heavy house work, and taking the stairs (not elevators) are as effective as a structured exercise program in improving heart function, lowering blood pressure, and maintaining current weight. The problem is that we do not have the interest or take the time to do these daily things, and therefore, Americans resort to structured gym programs wherein a certain amount of time can be “scheduled” to fit our daily lifestyle. This is fine, except only 15 per cent of us do it.

The other main factor in protecting the heart is our eating habits. Many of you have heard of the Mediterranean Diet, but only recently was it discovered what made it work, and it is not red wine or olive oil. Apparently the secret is alpha-linolenic acid, which is not found in many foods but is in foods made with canola (rapeseed) oil, walnuts, flaxseed oil, and soybeans. A four-year study of people who had a heart attack within six months of starting the diet showed that those who ate canola-rich foods had a 70 per cent reduction in the risk of a second attack and a similar reduction in overall death rate.

The worst kind of accumulated fat (adipose fat) is in the abdomen; “apple shaped” men and women are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who put weight on the hips. Women with  waists 38 inches or greater had more than three times the risk of heart disease than those whose waists were 28 inches or less.

Failure of the heart muscle is the main cause of death in America, and the main culprit is a certain kind of fat, specifically saturated fat such as stearic acid and certain kinds of animal fat. Even eating one high fat meal can be dangerous for those with high fat levels already in the blood. That is because large amounts of fat can trigger vascular spasms or clots. To widen an artery, the body produces nitric oxide, but after a high fat meal it cannot do this, and the blood flow can decrease rapidly and stay that way for up to four hours.

It’s interesting that test subjects who took 1,000 mg of vitamin C and 800 units of vitamin E before the meal blocked the harmful effects of the fat clogging the arteries. The amino acid L-Arginine also increases the body’s ability to produce nitric oxide. Two of the most important supplements for the heart are CoQ 10 and Omega 3.

When we take exercise and diet together, we have formed a fighting adversary to heart disease. Just as weight reduction is a combination of diet and strength training, protecting the heart uses the same combination. Everyone cheats on diets, so allow a little leeway.

Chocolate is good for the heart; about one large square piece daily, 70 per cent or higher. If you plan to eat a high fat dinner, it may make a lot of sense to take those two vitamins (C and E) first; you never know; they might save you.

Ross Macdonald, BS, MS, CPT has written over 150 articles for Atención on exercise, health, and vitamins/supplements since 1997. He can be reached at


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