What is Really Meant By Cardio-Vascular Health & Fitness?

It makes sense that if our health and fitness program is working and we are getting fitter and stronger, our heart rate and breaths per minute when we engage in the same or a similar physical activity, should steady over time.

It seems entirely possible that what is actually meant by the expression “cardio” as a way of “maintaining cardio-vascular health from a fitness perspective  is actually misunderstood by the average health seeker. Although I am no medical expert, I have been studying yoga, nutrition, fitness, health and the many and various associated principles of anatomy and physiology for the best part of the last 15 years.  My teacher since 1998 is not just a yoga and natural health guru with 40 years of research and study as well as a huge international following, but also a genetic scientist, physiotherapist and author. He is co-writer of the Master of Wellness program for RMIT (pretty much, a more expensive version of the consistent, intensive study I have undertaken over the years).

It seems important to state this because, while some may feel that the “yoga” way of thinking about health is airy fairy and should perhaps be discounted for being nothing more than an unusual perspective, I would argue that actually, ancient wisdom is finally being backed up with modern research.  It doesn’t just make sense; when we think about these things, logically, it’s common sense too. Thirty years ago when I began my own personal health journey in my teens, I often believed that yoga teachers were “unusual” or “different” from me or from the general populace and so what they abided by wasn’t necessarily for “the rest of us”. Now though, when chatting  about this stuff, I get the impression that some people think this about me! Not true! We just tend to become “the thing” we stick with or the ideals that we live by – but the beginning is the beginning and that’s where we all start – no matter what it is. I was obsessed by the gym for 10 years. I also ran, swam and counted calories. When I started yoga with Simon, I loved that it was physically challenging but that my head felt clear. Emotionally, I had never felt better and my body felt great. I wanted to devote a bit more time to yoga because it made me feel so amazing, but I was actually fearful of giving up the gym! What would happen? Well, actually, umm nothing bad. I stopped counting calories, I lost weight (although I didn’t really need to) and I became fitter and stronger than I had been before yet doing less super-intensive exercise. And, wow, I ended up a bit saner than my previous highly-strung obsessive self too  – which is always nice for those around you! (The average amount of calories burnt running 1.7km is about 100; walking burns about half that much. If your exercise goal is only to burn calories because you want to lose weight, science has confirmed that actually lowering your calorie intake works better).

Cardio-Vascular fitness is obtained or maintained by enhancing blood circulation and optimising the ability of our organs and muscles to efficiently move oxygen around the body and into the cells.

Yogic health science might describe oxygen and blood as citta or prana, traditional Chinese Medicine as qi.  But what’s interesting here is that although it’s common to hear over and over again that we should be “raising our heart rate” (in order to be able to achieve the above), we also KNOW that the healthiest people – elite athletes, yogis, divers – tend to have the lowest, resting heart rates. The resting heart rates of the not-so-healthy or the stressed or anxious however – for example those with lots of medical problems due to lifestyle, diet or illness – may be higher than average.

So, Why “Raise Your Heart Rate” – Is it Necessary?

The other day one of my yoga students  walked into class in a bit of a panic, stating  “Phew, at least I have done my ‘cardio’ for the day!”.   Apparently a local council worker had given her a big fright by walking into the road in front of her car. He appeared out of nowhere, she’d thought she was going to run him over and her heart was racing. Our hearts race when we feel stressed or afraid. They also race if we do intensive bouts of exercise.

Even though my student had not done any intensive exercise at that point, she still, somehow or other, had concluded that raising her heart rate was good – in any situation, including panic.

Then, during a conversation, another person told me they felt they should do “cardio” in their limited spare time (rather than yoga). Again, because their deep seated belief is that exercise is only useful in a “cardio” sense if they feel lots of “puff” (as in huff, puff and pant!). Again, this seems to be most people’s view when it comes to being fit in a cardio-vascular sense. But, as we know, the sick, ill, unfit and unhealthy often pant and breathe quickly and audibly even when they are doing very little physical activity.

So.. let’s get back to the elite athletes and the relatively unfit and have a think about this for a moment.

Lucky for me, I have never been seriously ill and it’s been a long time since I haven’t felt fit. However, I do recall that during the later stages of pregnancy and for a few months post birth, any kind of exercise felt a lot more intense than it had prior. My body was different.  I felt weaker and I had less endurance. My breathing was laboured, and I was tired. No doubt that during that time, my heart rate and breaths per minute would have increased to a much higher level while doing the same amount of exercise as I had always done prior. And, I probably huffed, puffed and panted!! Is that a good thing though? And if so, why? Is it better for me to be in recovery or in a special condition so I can achieve my “goal” of a higher heart rate and a sense of feeling out of breath? Or, does it seem logical that it is better for your body to be in such good condition that actually, you can exercise normally without your heart rate going through the roof and/or without panting and puffing? Who is the fittest, healthiest person at the finish line? Is it the one with the highest or the lowest heart rate? Is it the one gasping for breath or the one who can still talk and hold a normal conversation?

The point is, that very unhealthy people who never exercise will probably get a significant increase in their heart rate, perhaps even huff and puff, simply because they walked up a small flight of stairs. In order to build fitness and strength, an increase in heart rate is necessary and we will probably over-breathe, but as we get fitter and healthier, a walk up the stairs is insignificant. In other words, if our health and fitness program is actually working, it makes sense that over time, we should be able to do the same amount of exercise without always experiencing massive changes in our breathing pattern that cause us to inhale through the mouth, gasp for breath generally or experience significant increases in our heart rate. 

Improving the Circulatory Systems

Although many of us believe increasing our heart rate has lots to do with improving blood flow and circulation, actually our heart is not necessarily a sufficient way to pump blood through the body. Citing a 1995 study (Marinelli et al), Borg-Oliver & Machliss state:

“..Evidence suggests that the main function of the heart is as a valve and not as a pressure pump..[the] movement of the blood through the cardiovascular system has more to do with the nature and qualities of blood and blood vessels as well as the functioning of the other six circulatory pumps

The heart is therefore just one of seven circulatory pumps that exist to move energy, blood and information around the body. The other six include gravity – for example if we raise our arm or we are upside down we can feel the change in blood flow; Musculo-skeletal – the tensing and releasing that we do when we walk, exercise generally and particularly when we practise more dynamic strength and movement-based styles of yoga that create a push and pull of blood in and out of the muscles; Respiratory – the way we create expansion or compression through breathing and our lung function generally; Postural – Stretching and lengthening muscles pulls blood into that region; Coactivation/Bandha – consciously creating tensioning around a joint (think “bandage”) for protection, stability or strength (ie around the wrists or ankles if balancing); Centripetal –  Movements  around most of the joints in the human body tend to be circular. With acceleration, centripetal and centrifugal forces are generated which moves blood and information around the body.

Conclusion: For healthy, fit and active people, it is more than possible to move blood efficiently around the body without raising the heart rate or hyper-ventilating. Therefore, the term “cardio” as a way to describe only intense forms of exercise doesn’t make sense.


How do we improve levels of oxygen in our cellular system?

The ability to oxygenate the cellular body essentially begins with how we breathe, but as with our whole physiological system, nothing works alone. If one aspect of the machine is compromised – and this includes our thinking/feeling emotional state – a reaction will be set in motion.  Short term, now and then is okay; the body recovers, and a knock on effect may not be apparent.  Over the long term though, as a way of being, these things have the potential to become insidious. For one example, blood pressure usually increases if muscles are chronically tense which may lead to hyper-tension. On the other hand, over-breathing can lead to hypo-tension (or low blood pressure) causing symptoms associated with vertigo such as feeling faint and dizzy. Because of these consistent, slight changes in how the body has to function, its ability to operate at an optimal level will be compromised. This sets up an environment for a more serious health issue to develop somewhere down the track – but upon investigation it will usually seem as if there is no apparent cause.

To explain this further;

An oxygenated blood cell burns sugar (glucose) at around 20x that of an un-oxygenated blood cell. So that’s a diabetes flag right there. An oxygenated blood cell also burns energy around 20x faster (so that’s your metabolism and ability to burn calories). The actual oxygen making its way into our blood cells will affect our iron levels (anaemia) or  the opposite (haemochromatosis). It is also believed that cancer cells cannot survive in the presence of oxygen. There are, in fact way too many related health issues to mention, but you’re getting the idea: A myriad of potential, chronic health problems that may develop over time if the ability to oxygenate our cellular system becomes compromised.

I have written a few other blogs on this stuff  (I’ll pop the links below) so don’t want to keep repeating myself but essentially, the ability to get oxygen into our cells comes back to our ability to build CO2 (carbon-dioxide) in our body.

This happens when we breathe less, not more. It’s a calm state – slightly acidic actually and probably why most long-term meditators seem to enjoy great health. It’s also why long term yogis tend to live longer, stay slimmer and overall, seem to be healthier. It’s why you feel and look great when you get back from holidays! This calm, slightly acidic state often manifests in a tendency to be drawn towards healthier, more alkaline foods. Long-term hyper-ventilation or over-breathing is what humans do when they are unhealthy, sick or stressed and it often leads us to crave more acidic foods so as to balance our blood PH and calm the nervous system.

Are you starting to see now how in a calm, more relaxed state, our systems all work in harmony to create a more organic environment on every level?

Things that affect our breathing:

– Stress / Anxiety (Real or imaginary problems), over-reacting

– Posture – functional, structural and/or habitual

– Orthodontics (teeth, shape of our jaw) – sometimes caused from mouth breathing, could be hereditary

– Chronic Tension, (particularly around the abdominal area which our body interprets as a flight or flight response*).

– Sinus problems – breathing through the mouth (also related to orthodontics)

– Eating lots of acidic foods such as processed, junk, meat, high-protein, sugary non-natural carbs as opposed to more alkaline produce (light, fruit, veg, salad)

– Continually over-exercising to the point that you cannot talk normally or become unable to breathe through your nose.

Conclusion: A fully functioning body and optimal  health – which includes cardio-vascular fitness – is only possible if there is a harmonious, physiological interaction on each level (diet, breath, movement, flexibility, strength, relaxation). This holistic integration allows blood, oxygen and information to be transported efficiently around the body and to make its way into the cells. Ideally, for the majority of the time, this should happen WITHOUT a significant increase in our heart rate and it should not affect our ability to breathe properly. This is healthy and fit on a cardio-vascular level. Dynamic, movement-based and strength building styles of yoga provide a perfect way to learn how to do this because the aim is to exercise while staying calm and breathing less.

*The knock-on effects of chronic abdominal tension – which is more prevalent in women for obvious reasons – are endless. It inhibits diaphragmatic function, lowers immunity, increases resting heart rate, increases blood pressure (because the circulatory system cannot function properly), creates problems with the endocrine (hormonal) system, the reproductive system and the ability of the body to digest and assimilate food. There may be skin eruptions and/or rashes and illnesses or conditions usually associated with the nervous system. Add to that possible hip, shoulder, neck and spinal problems. This is why yogic health science (ayerveda) and Traditional Chinese Medicine understand that all health problems have their essence in the gut.
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