This morning, as I sipped coffee and eyed the frost on the grass outside, bolstering myself mentally for my morning run, I read this article about What Apes Can Teach Us About Our Heart Health, in the NYTimes. It’s a bit of a fluffy article, comparing “dozens” of chimpanzees hearts and blood pressures with the heart scans and blood repssures of an unknown quantity of “young, male distance runners and football players at Harvard, subsistence farmers in Mexico, and 40 sedentary but healthy young men in Boston.” So not a large, representative sample size.
However, the article found that the hearts of the sedentary workers and the distance runners were the most adapted to endurance aerobic exercise, with thin flexible walls and the lowest blood pressure, while the football players and sedentary gentlemen had thicker walls and higher blood pressure that more resembled the hearts of the chimps and gorillas used in the study.
Does this mean that runners and farmers are more evolved? No. Instead, it reveals the incredible plasticity of our human bodies, our body to shape and change our muscles and even our organs depending on how we use, or don’t use, our bodies. This message can be truly inspiring for those in pain or out of shape. It’s never too late to start on a healthier path. The study points out that the young, sedentary men, by not giving in to our evolutionary instinct to walk and run, are showing the early signs of heart disease now. But evidence in many other studies shows that this damage can be slowed and even reversed. The most inspiring story I know that illustrates this truth is the story of Ernestine Shepherd, who at 77 is now a body builder with rippling abs and a fully toned body. She got there even though she started working out for the first time at age 56.
Another thing to note about the NYT study is that the group contained two different groups of athletes, who’s hearts looked different, one favoring aerobic endurance and one built for power and strength. Yet both were healthy individuals. I take this as a sign that as humans, we have the ability to shape our hearts either way, to be strong and powerful and fast and enduring. So don’t spend time worrying about what activity is best – do everything you can, and focus on what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you will do it more, you shape your body to be healthy, and you will set yourself up for a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life.
So now I’ve got to take my own advice: wiggle out of the fuzzy bathrobe, put the coffee mug in the dishwasher, and strap on the running shoes and my gloves. Breathe in the cold air, and appreciate the sun piercing through the 20 degree chill. Wishing you a happy, heart-healthy day on your trail of choice!