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Military Health System

Training for a healthy heart can improve overall health

Image of Military personnel wearing a mask exercising in the gym. Navy Information Systems Technician 1st Class Caleb Womack performs a plank in preparation of the Physical Readiness Test at the Naval Recruiting Command in Millington, Tennessee, in February. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Priestley)

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Having a medically ready force means ensuring each service member is in optimum physical, mental, and spiritual health to perform at their best throughout their high-stress careers. A healthy heart is essential to service members’ performance because it’s the pump that ensures their bodies get the right amount of nutrients and oxygen to work properly and sustain them.

To do that, the heart itself must work properly, and the lifestyle choices service members make contribute to their hearts’ health.

“A healthy heart not only is important for how your body performs in the present, but also contributes to your longevity,” said Tim Bockelman, supervisory physical fitness advisor and sports medicine and injury protection coordinator for the Recruit Training Regiment at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina.

Exercise is one important aspect to achieving a healthy heart, but there are specific ways to exercise to ensure your heart is protected to allow for optimum performance. However, exercise is not the only way to achieve heart health.

“A good combination of healthy behaviors include exercise, recovery, nutrition, sleep, limiting alcohol use, smoking cessation, along with decreasing amount of inactivity, such as sitting at the game console or watching television, can positively impact heart health and performance,” said Bockelman.

And though all types of exercise contribute to good health, certain types of exercise contribute most to a healthy heart.

“For heart health, the recommendation is moderate intensity activities for 2.5 hours per week,” said Bockelman.

“Moderate exercise activities increase your heart rate and cause you to sweat, but you’re still able to talk,” he said. Hiking, brisk walking, biking on a level surface, water aerobics, etc. are some examples of moderate intensity activities.

And if you plan to engage in higher-intensity activities, the recommended time decreases because they engage your heart more.

“If you ramp up the intensity to something vigorous, such as running, circuit training, biking faster or with hills, or swimming laps, the recommended time decreases to 1.25 hours per week,” said the recruit trainer.

During vigorous activities, your heart rate increases and your ability to talk is limited to a few words between breaths. These higher-intensity activities are cardiovascular strategies that alternate between shorter bursts of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods.

A large group of military personnel wearing face masks, listening to someone speak
Recruits with Lima Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, participate in the Initial Strength Test at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, on Feb. 12. To officially begin training, each recruit must successfully pass the test, which is a combination of pull-ups, crunches, and a 1.5-mile run. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Zachary Beatty)

“Research using high-intensity interval training has moved past just providing performance benefits to where it is also providing heart health benefits,” said Bockelman.

Studies show the shorter duration, but more intense workouts result in an increased supply of oxygen to the muscles and improved lung, heart, and metabolic health. They also result in improved exercise tolerance, or how well the heart responds to exercise.

Marine Corps recruits, for example, must pass physical and combat fitness tests and be ready for the rigors of other training events and follow-on training, said Bockelman. “We’ve looked at those physical demands and developed a progressive regimen in balance with total body high-intensity interval training, strength conditioning, mobility, and flexibility.”

The conditioning program is designed to improve their physical performance, but it also provides general health improvement to include heart health. However, there are other aspects to heart health that contribute to overall health for optimum performance.

Proper sleep and a healthy diet, for example, allow the body to recover and withstand high-stress and high-performance careers such as those of service members.

“A diet with high levels of fat, especially saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium, and alcohol has been linked poor heart health,” said Bockelman. “High-performing service members need to look at foods to fuel their body for performance and health.”

A calorie intake over your daily needs will lead to obesity, which increases the risk for a cardiac episode, he said. And combining this with a high-stress lifestyle is not a good combination for optimum performance.

Likewise, “poor sleep patterns disrupt the resting heart rate and can increase blood pressure,” he said. “Restful sleep is vital to daily performance and health.”

Spiritual and mental health also contribute to a healthy heart. In turn, a healthy heart impacts mind and spirit for optimal performance.

“Sound spirituality can provide a sense of purpose,” said Bockelman. “This can lower stress levels and can help service members cope with stressful situations. In turn, cardiorespiratory stress and blood pressure can stay low.”

Service members can “work out” certain aspects of their life to contribute to keeping their heart healthy by making sound lifestyle choices to ensure they attain overall health. Today, technology provides tools to help individuals help themselves achieve and maintain optimum health.

“There are a multitude of smartphone apps to help lead you through brief mindfulness and relaxation techniques,” said Bockelman. “Even watches are now providing stress evaluation and recommendations. A couple minutes a few times a day with these techniques can bring a significant calm and stress reduction to your life.”

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Last Updated: February 22, 2021
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