Physical Fitness—Is It Worth the Effort?
IT WAS a Saturday luncheon. Everyone had just stood up. Suddenly a man slumped against the person beside him. He was helped to his seat. But the heart attack killed him almost instantly. He was only thirty-four years old, but somewhat overweight.
It would be sad enough if this were only an isolated incident. But every day heart attacks are striking many persons in their thirties, forties and fifties—killing or crippling them. It is an epidemic! The New York Times Encyclopedic Almanac 1970 says: “We are in a new age of pandemics [widespread epidemics], since nearly half of the men of the Western countries (and an increasing proportion of the women) are dying of a single ailment—cardiovascular disease or, more specifically, coronary [heart] catastrophe.”
Why is it particularly in Western countries, where there is material prosperity, that this ailment is common? And why has it become an epidemic in this generation? The consensus of medical experts is that there are a number of contributing factors, each of which adversely affects physical fitness.
What Is Physical Fitness?
According to one doctor, adequate fitness allows a person to carry out his daily activities without interference of fatigue. Also, a fit person has enough physical reserve to meet unexpected emergencies safely, and possesses sufficient energy to enjoy leisure time.
So it might be said that one who is physically fit is able to tolerate stress. The stress may be from a hard day at the office or from doing housework, from a near-accident, a run to catch a bus, and so forth. These things place extra demands on the body; more oxygen must be delivered to the muscles, and extra waste products carried away. This requires increased output of the heart and faster circulation.
But what if one is not fit? Then physical functions do not respond adequately. This can be dangerous. Often one hears about individuals who collapse in a situation of stress. For example, each winter many persons topple over when shoveling snow from their walks. Their hearts and circulatory systems are not sufficiently fit to supply the increased volume of blood, and so fail.
Surely physical fitness is desirable. Not only can it make one a safer person—able to cope with stressful situations without dangerous effects—but it can improve personal effectiveness in every field. A fit person feels better, looks better, has greater energy, and therefore enjoys life more.
Thus you may conclude that physical fitness is worth the effort. But what effort is advisable? What factors adversely affect fitness, and thus contribute to coronary catastrophe?
Major Enemies of Fitness
One factor is obesity, and a high saturated-fat diet. When rich foods are consumed in abundance, body fat accumulates—half of the adults in the United States are overweight. But much more serious are the unseen fatty deposits, particularly those that build up in the walls of the heart’s coronary arteries. Blockage of a vital artery often leads to a fatal heart attack.
Studies show that African Bantu and other peoples who eat a diet limited in rich foods have few if any fatty deposits in the walls of coronary arteries, and thus little heart disease. Yet arterial deposits have become commonplace in persons in prosperous countries. Significantly, during World War II when the diet of peoples in Scandinavian countries was restricted in calories and fat, the incidence of heart trouble dropped dramatically.
Watching one’s diet, therefore, is apparently essential to physical fitness, and reduces chances of heart attack. Remember, visible fat likely means that inside the body fatty deposits are accumulating in arteries, dangerously narrowing them. So avoid excess weight! It may be advisable, too, to limit or exclude the eating of foods deep-fried in animal fat, as well as to utilize as a generous source of nutrition vegetables, fruits, melons and cereals.
Another factor contributing to reduced fitness is believed to be today’s high-speed, tension-producing way of life. Previous generations did not live at the accelerated pace at which people do today, with the sense of time urgency, the tremendous competitiveness, and the latent hostility. Although the effects of this are difficult to measure, some experts believe it is a primary factor in the horrendous increase of coronary heart disease. Cardiologist Meyer Friedman explains:
“What I am saying—and we have much data to support it—is that whenever a man struggles too incessantly to accomplish too many things in too little a space of time, thus engendering in himself a sense of time urgency, or whenever a man struggles too competitively with other individuals, this struggle markedly accentuates the course of coronary heart disease. . . . the biochemical forces generated by this internal unrest are quite capable in themselves of bringing on the [catastrophe of] cardiac arrest.”
Racing a car engine constantly at top speed will shorten its life. In effect, that is what millions of men are doing to themselves—frantically striving to get ahead, to get a better position, to do more than the other fellow—only to suffer an abrupt breakdown. Surely it is not worth it! Obtaining many material things is not necessary for real happiness.—1 Tim. 6:8-10.
A Common Foe of Fitness
Now we come to an especially common foe of fitness—the modern sedentary life-style. This is believed to be a main contributing factor in the avalanche of cardiovascular disease. The aim today is seemingly to remove any need for exerting a muscle.
Cars have replaced legs as the principal means of transportation, and even arms are spared by power steering and electrical windows. In office buildings workers are carried from one floor to another by elevators. At home electrically driven brushes shine shoes and brush teeth. Lawns are cut with self-propelled lawn mowers. And TV channels are changed from one’s seat with remote control channel changers.
Emphasis on the ‘easy life’ has all but eliminated physical exertion. The fact is, the hardest daily work many office workers do is to take a shower and dress! But does such lack of exercise really precipitate heart attacks?
Yes, evidence reveals that sedentary persons are more prone to heart attacks than are persons who are active.
For example, one study found that London bus conductors who constantly walked back and forth and up and down stairs of double-decked buses had a heart attack rate half that of bus drivers. Also, a study of monastery residents, where diet and environment were the same, revealed that field workers had fewer heart attacks than monks with sedentary occupations.
Authorities nearly unanimously agree that exercise is vital to healthful life. Director of Cardiovascular Research at the University of Vermont, Dr. Wilhelm Raab, put it pointedly: “Lack of exercise is the major cause of coronary heart disease.”
But why is this said? Why do we need exercise to live?
The Heart’s Capability
Our body is composed of more than 600 muscles, the heart being the most remarkable of them. It normally beats around seventy times a minute, or some 100,000 times a day. During this time it pumps over seven tons of blood through the body’s more than 60,000 miles of blood vessels. Yet at that rate the heart is not working hard. It is capable of much greater effort.
For example, when it is called upon during exercise the heart of a physically fit person can double the amount of blood pumped with each beat or stroke. And it can greatly speed up its rate, pumping effectively while beating 180 times a minute. Thus the heart is capable of increasing its output over fivefold, pumping some twenty-eight quarts a minute to feed nourishment to the body’s muscles. And the hearts of endurance-athletes possess an even greater capability!
Surely having such a remarkable capacity for work, the heart of a sedentary person must suffer from lack of exertion. Doctor M. F. Gram of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School observes: “To deprive this remarkable organ of maximum function over long periods of time is an invitation to disaster. It is much akin to putting an arm in a sling; the muscles wither and atrophy and soon the arm is capable of performing but a fraction of the work for which it was originally intended. Then, when suddenly called upon for sudden strenuous exertion, it is unable to rise to the occasion. Commonly, in the case of the untrained heart, this results in a heart attack.”
Needs of the Heart
The heart muscle needs a constant and large amount of blood to nourish it, requiring 1/20 of the body’s blood supply even though it represents only 1/200 of the body weight. The heart does not get this blood directly from its own receiving and ejecting chambers, but obtains it through the two coronary arteries. These major arteries encircle the heart, and branch into many smaller and smaller arteries that extend over and dip into the heart muscle. The oxygen and other nutrients provided by these arteries are vitally important, for these are the arteries directly involved in heart attacks.
The Value of Regular Exercise
What occurs when a person is sedentary? The arteries supplying blood to muscles become narrower in size, and many small vessels even disappear. Thus the blood to muscles, and hence oxygen, is less. The body’s total blood volume is even reduced. If there is an emergency, perhaps a sudden stress or a “clogged” coronary artery, then what? The circulatory system may not be able to provide the heart sufficient oxygen, causing a heart attack.
On the other hand, what happens when a person is regularly active? During vigorous physical activity blood flow through skeletal muscles increases about tenfold and oxygen consumption of these muscles may increase a hundredfold. Thus regular exercise causes a person’s arteries to become larger, so they can carry more blood. Also, more blood vessels open up in muscle tissue, providing new routes for delivering more oxygen. Particularly in the heart muscle is this an advantage, for then even if one artery becomes “clogged,” blood supplied by auxiliary routes may be sufficient to keep the heart muscle from starving for oxygen and stopping.
Regular physical activity, too, strengthens the pumping action of the heart. So fewer strokes are necessary to accomplish the same results, allowing a conditioned heart to rest more. Sedentary persons, who have heart rates of eighty or more beats per minute, may significantly reduce this rate and permit their hearts to rest more by regular exercise.
But the special benefit of physical activity is that the strengthened heart operates more efficiently under stress. This is easily demonstrated. For example, in one test a group of white-collar workers were given a twenty-minute period of exercise. Their heart rates on the average speeded up to 170 beats per minute, about as high as is safe for unconditioned men. However, after engaging in this exercise period daily for eighty-four days, the average heart rate of the men speeded up only to 142 beats per minute. Their hearts were doing the same amount of work with less effort. Fitness had been improved. This meant that stress could be tolerated more effectively and with less danger of heart failure.
Making the Effort
Man’s body clearly was designed to be exercised. However, in seeking to satisfy that need, it is wise to be moderate, avoiding undue emphasis on bodily training, to the neglect of one’s spirituality.—Titus 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:8.
The sensation of fatigue commonly felt by sedentary workers is often related to a lack of exercise. If a person would engage in physical activity it would help to energize him and overcome his tiredness. Making a regular habit of walking is a fine way to begin. Why not walk instead of taking the car on short trips? Said one doctor: “Vigorous walking, if practiced from youth on, would in itself drastically reduce the disability and early deaths due to coronary heart disease.”
Other physical activity is also good. Swimming, bicycling, washing the car, gardening, mowing the lawn—any form of activity that requires vigorous physical movement will be beneficial to sedentary workers if it is done regularly. Using the stairs rather than the elevator is a fine way to improve physical fitness.
However, there is a need of caution: Beware of exercising too vigorously at the outset, before your circulatory system has been upgraded by regular activity. Gradually increase the amount of exercise, and avoid the tendency to try to do too much at one time. This will allow the heart and blood vessels to be progressively strengthened, and not harmed.
Physical fitness is worth the effort. The question is, Are you willing to make that effort?