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Beware: When exercise can damage your heart

Exercise is something you do to keep your heart healthy — but can it have the opposite effect? Possibly. Although there is no question that exercise is necessary to maintain health and fitness, there is evidence that suggests that exercising too much, or in unsuitable conditions, can do more harm than good, especially for the heart. Don’t let this deter you from your morning laps or running routine, but do be smart about how your pursue your fitness goals. Here’s when exercise is unhealthy for your heart.

Woman exercising in heat

The weather is too hot for your heart to handle

Extra caution is in order when exercising in hot weather. During exercise, the heart is working to deliver blood and oxygen to laboring muscles. When it’s hot out, the heart has to work overtime to send blood to the skin where it can be cooled by evaporation of perspiration. This extra workload can spell trouble. Be sure to stay hydrated, keep an eye on your target heart rate and make an effort to exercise during the cooler hours of the day or indoors if possible.

Too much exercise too soon strains the heart

There’s a lot to be said for pushing yourself — “eye of the tiger” and all — but you don’t want to push yourself directly into cardiac arrest. If you’re not ready for it, sudden strenuous exercise can be a bad idea. Build up your exercise routine slowly, so your heart has a chance to get stronger along with the rest of your body. Remember that your heart is a muscle, just like your quadriceps and your biceps. If you ask too much of your heart muscle before it is prepared, you could end up with considerably more dangerous consequences than an overtaxed quad. If you’re just beginning to exercise after a long layoff, have a pre-existing health condition, or you’re over 40 years old, visit your doctor for a physical. Then get out there and get fit — but pace yourself.

Over-training hurts your heart

Too much of a good thing is still too much. Various studies of endurance athletes (marathon runners, triathletes, etc.) have shown troubling evidence that prolonged endurance exercise can have a significant negative effect on the heart. Although the studies suggest that such damage may be temporary and reversible, if you’re not an endurance athlete familiar with the rigors of intense training as a lifestyle, it’s far better to show some restraint in your fitness endeavors. Listen to your body: If you’re constantly fatigued; you have trouble sleeping; your joints and limbs ache; you feel run-down, find yourself getting sick all the time; and you’re just generally irritable, restless, or grouchy, chances are good you are overtraining. It may be time to dial your workouts back a few notches.

Know the signs of heart distress

If you experience any of the following warning signs during exercise, stop immediately. Err on the side of caution here — go with your instincts. If you suspect you’re in serious distress, call 911. Watch for:

  • Extreme or unusual shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations or missed beats
  • Dizziness, faintness or light-headedness
  • Severe, sudden fatigue or weakness
  • Pain, pressure or a sensation of tightness or heaviness in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes and possibly radiating to the shoulders, arms (left or right), back, neck or jaw

Remember: Everything in moderation – including exercise.

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Joining Shay Pausa is celebrity chef Gale Gand and Dr. Jennifer Mieres. They discuss how what we eat affects our heart.

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