The Heart of the Matter

About 7 years ago I began to experience random, infrequent, but oddly noticeable palpitations and twinges in my chest. At times it felt as if my heart had completely stopped beating, other times it felt as if someone were pinching my heart. I immediately told my primary care physician and was sent to a specialist who had me wear a heart monitor for a few days. The results of the heart monitor did in fact prove that something may be a bit irregular and further tests would necessary. I was then referred to a cardiologist for follow-up.

As a single mom, I had no resources to deal with taking time off work, scheduling multiple appointments and paying out-of-pocket and/or co-pay fees. Every single mom (the ones with no support from dad) will understand where I'm coming from on this. The last person I ever had time to worry about was myself. If I was going to take time off from work, it was going to be for my daughter's school events or her doctor appointments. If I was going to spend money, it was going to be on her, food or rent. So, for 4 years this remained on my to-do list, buried way at the bottom. I felt odd now and again from time-to-time, but I blamed stress and carried on. In fact, I just worked out harder, hoping that staying in shape would ease any health issues and help me cope with stress better.

Then I started running. Then I ran a marathon. Then I noticed people sometimes die at the finish line after running these races. Suddenly, seven years later, my heart became priority #1 for me.

 Photo: ClipArt Best

Photo: ClipArt Best

As the amount of new runners registering for races continues to increase, so too do the stories of runners collapsing on the course. I know it isn't necessarily the act of running that is causing these incidents, it is heart disease, and people not taking the miles seriously enough to make sure they are healthy before they start training.

Quick facts (Source: CDC.Gov):

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
  • Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing nearly 380,000 people annually.
  • In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds. Each minute, someone in the United States dies from a heart disease-related event.
  • 30 to 50 percent of your risk for many diseases resides in your genes.
  • Risk factors: 
    • Diabetes
    • Overweight and obesity
    • Poor diet
    • Physical inactivity
    • Excessive alcohol use

Yes, that shiny medal is very enticing, but it is very important to asses your health and consult your physician before attempting a long-distance race. Recent studies have shown that marathon runners have increased artery plaque, and some studies show runners suffer from arrhythmia. Although, it's important to note that running is ultimately great exercise, and many long distance runners are perfectly healthy, have strong hearts and live long, full lives. Studies aside, the bottom line is that you should be aware of your family history and your own heart health before embarking on endurance running. You signed the waiver, after all.

With that in mind, I decided it was time for me to see a cardiologist. Lately, I have been short of breath when I run, and most recently mile 10 seems to be my breaking point. Additionally, I smoked and ate a lot of junk food when I was in my 20s, and I only know my mother's heart history. Now, all these years later, I finally have the time and health insurance to take care of myself.

 Hey look, it's my heart!

Hey look, it's my heart!

A little research brought me to a great cardiologist, and we met twice last week. First, we met to check my vitals, get to know each other, review my health history and discuss my concerns and lifestyle. Immediately our conversation turned to running as she and her husband are also runners. She was quite surprised to learn that over the last year I've had a tendency to run about a half marathon per month - with little to no training. She seemed a bit concerned with the lack of training, but was happy I use a walk/run method. She actually feels I am very well conditioned. Another thing that made her happy: I am not running full marathons often, or at all. Although she and her husband are runners, it is her opinion that full marathons just aren't for everyone, and she feels it's not something you ever need to put your body through. Having run one marathon, I can agree. As we continued our conversation I realized the best thing I ever did was not register for another full marathon (I was actually considering the 48.6 mile Dopey Challenge at WDW). Not until I have a clean bill of health, and not until I am sure I actually want to put in the time training. Yes, running is a great escape, but I actually LIKE the people I live with. No need to train that long, and travel that far to escape them. Especially if I am not sure of my own health.

A few days later I returned for an ultrasound and to pick-up a heart monitor which I am wearing for the next 30 days. Imagine how fun reading the reports must be after I work out.

 I beep loudly when I work out with Shaun T.

I beep loudly when I work out with Shaun T.

The ultrasound was amazing, and I am glad I brought my daughter along. Watching your own heart beat is scary and humbling. This small muscle works so hard to keep me alive, day in and day out. It doesn't ask for much in return other than it not be fed garbage. We left with a greater respect for our bodies, and a deeper sense of being. Also, it looks like Jabba the Hutt.

I have a stress test later this week and will continue to wear the heart monitor throughout the month of June. Hopefully, there is nothing wrong, but I'll be much happier knowing either way.

Before you embark on any hardcore exercise regimen or start training for an endurance race, take a second to run it by your doctor first. Don't make the mistake of thinking heart disease is only something older, heavier people have to worry about.

Please feel free to comment below with your own heart health stories.