Commander's Fit Tip: A beat is a terrible thing to waste

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  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
So, you've already busted your New Year's resolution, you missed the Commander's Fit Tip on the Christmas Day Marathon, and despite the times you did make it to the gym, you just aren't seeing the results. Maybe you need to look a little deeper than the scale. In fact, the real results are far more important than a better day at the beach or one more year in your favorite jeans. The real benefit comes with every beat of your heart. And in this fight, every beat counts.

Some of you have heard of the "heartbeat theory." I read some gym humor (OK, that's just a little disturbing!) where a patient asked a doctor if exercise would help him live longer. The doctor also subscribed to the heartbeat theory...where you are born with a fixed number of heartbeats and wasting them all on the treadmill was just that...wasteful. "Tell me this..." he'd ask "If you want your car to last longer, do you drive it faster? If you want to live longer, take a nap." Well, there's certainly some goodness in a nap, but just for fun, let's bust this myth and add one more tool to our bag of tricks when it comes to seeing results from our workouts.

Let's just assume this theory has some merit. At the extreme, we really might just burn out the old ticker, right? But since the heart is a pump, and pumps are the mechanical engineer's domain, let's do some math. First some terms and units. "Heart rate" is usually described in "beats per minute." Doctors call this your "pulse." As you increase your activity, your pulse increases. But we don't exercise all day, and since we can't count our heart beats all the time, let's look at some "averages." "Resting heart rate" is the number of times your heart beats in a minute, while you are at "rest." Well, "rest" is a bit of a relative term, but for this exploration, let's divide the day into "workout" and "rest." The "rest" is where the theory falls apart.

To measure your "resting heart rate" find a repeatable posture (lying down or sitting) and relax for a couple minutes with no talking, no distractions. Your heart will settle down to a very steady beat. Take your pulse for a minute, and I suspect you'll see somewhere between 60 and 90 BPM. This week, mine's about 55. But I don't get to lay around all day, so in all the hustle and bustle, let's say I average 70 BPM, including the time I spend in the 40s at night. But during my workout, I averaged 150. So, for 23 hours a day I churned out 70 x 60 x 23 hours (96,600 beats) and for an hour, 150 x 60 (9,000 beats) for a grand total of 105,600.

The heart beat theory would say I "wasted" around 4,000 beats during the workout. Not so fast!! A cardio workout makes the heart stronger, more efficient, and able to pump more blood in every beat. Two benefits...higher levels of performance when I need it, but more importantly, a correspondingly lower resting heart rate. That means, for every minute I'm "resting," the heart is beating fewer times a minute. Since I'm resting 95 percent of the time that adds up very quickly. How quickly? Look at it this way. You only have to lower your resting heart rate to 69 BPM to "break even." Here's the good news...if your resting HR is 70, a disciplined cardio routine can lower that to 65 very reliably. At 65 BPM, you save more than 7,000 beats a day. If you subscribe to the "heart beat theory," then all the time you "waste" on the treadmill literally adds years to your life.

Tracking your resting HR is one of the most objective and reliable indicators of your success early in a workout program. It is better than blood pressure, and WAY better than weight loss. Of course, over time, your resting heart rate will plateau and eventually, no matter how much you work out you won't see a decrease. At my peak I was in the high 40s. But until you plateau, track that number and lean on it when you need a little motivation. Even a one BPM drop saves more than a thousand beats a day, and yes, that's including the 4,000 some "wasted" during the workout.

I'll take that waste to the bank.