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Disease Prevention

Don't Forget Your Most Important Muscle: Your Heart

By Joe Decker

Many of us work out to target a specific part of our body. We want six-pack abs, bigger biceps or a firmer bum. We all want to look good on the outside.

Unfortunately, many of us overlook what’s on the inside, forgetting our body’s most important muscle: the heart. It’s an absolutely amazing machine and, unlike muscles that we see in the mirror, the heart never gets a break. Even while we sleep and our bodies are at rest, the heart is the one muscle that keeps on going and going. It’s our body’s Energizer Bunny.

The heart exercises when you do, delivering oxygen-rich blood to the other muscles as you intensify your workout. But maintaining a healthy heart demands more than just solid cardio training. Coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke accounted for more American deaths in 2004 than all forms of cancer combined. And the leading cause of CHD and stroke is atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is what our parents and grandparents used to call hardening of the arteries. It involves the gradual deposit of fatty substances called plaque along the inside of our arteries, which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. As plaque builds up over the years, it can hinder the blood supply to one or more parts of the body.

If that happens in your brain, for example, you’re at a high risk of having a stroke. If blood flow to your arms or legs becomes limited, you could face anything from numbness and pain to tissue death and gangrene. And if you’re a man, there’s another part of the body to worry about: Atherosclerosis is a leading cause of erectile dysfunction. In fact, a study found that over 60 percent of men who’d suffered heart attacks had erectile dysfunction before they knew they had cardiovascular disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Yet only about half of Americans understand how dangerous atherosclerosis really is, according to a recent Harris survey. Part of the reason is that most people don’t experience any symptoms until it’s too late. Heart attacks kill 600,000 Americans every year.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that atherosclerosis is also highly preventable, and there are some common sense steps you can take to reduce your risk.

Step One – Get Fit

A great starting point is getting up off the couch and engaging in regular physical activity. While it may be tempting to just dive into a new workout routine, you should always check with your doctor to make sure your training plan is right for your current medical condition.

Depending on your personal situation and general health, your doctor might recommend a program specifically geared to weight loss, building muscle mass or improving tone.

Step Two

Lifestyle changes can be difficult because they often involve changing or eliminating certain things we really enjoy. I love Mexican food, but I also know that if I eat too much of it, I could start having a weight problem.

There are other lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis. Quitting smoking is always in season, of course.

Another important step is to keep an eye on your LDL cholesterol. This is the "bad" cholesterol that can result in more plaque deposits in your arteries. Keeping LDL at low levels is a great way to keep yourself healthy.

Step Three – Talk to your Doctor

Sometimes, you need a little more than diet or exercise to maintain proper heart health. Sometimes it’s genetic and there is not a lot you can do about it. In those cases, there are a number of medications you can discuss with your doctor that can slow down the process of hardening arteries.

A simple aspirin can reduce the chance of blood clots formed by platelets that can clump together in the bloodstream. Some statins have even been shown to slow the progression of atherosclerosis. There also are anticoagulants like heparin or warfarin that can thin your blood, thereby helping prevent clots.

Remember: There is no magic bullet when it comes to keeping your heart muscle and cardiovascular system in good shape. A combination of appropriate lifestyle changes and talking with your doctor about diet, exercise and the use of medications can put you – and keep you – on the road to maintaining a strong and healthy heart.

For more information about heart health, visit or the American Heart Association at

Editor’s Note: Joe Decker is recognized as "The World’s Fittest Man" because he is an ultra-endurance power athlete, renowned fitness trainer, motivational author and speaker who has helped thousands of women, men, children and seniors get into shape and lose weight.

Once overweight and out-of-shape, Joe transformed his body and his life through an amazing journey from fat-to-fit. In 2000, Joe broke the Guinness World Records® 24-hour Physical Fitness Challenge to help inspire and motivate people to get fit.

He recently authored the book, The World’s Fittest You, which outlines how anyone can get on the road to a lifetime of physical fitness with hard work and discipline.

© 2008 Health Resources Publishing