A little over four years ago, one of my long-time idols died. He was 79 years old at the time. He passed away after becoming dizzy during a strenuous training session, falling and striking his head. He did not regain consciousness.
Harold “Hal” Connolly was the last American to win a gold medal in the hammer toss in the Olympic Games. This was 1956 in Melbourne. When I met him he was working in the Santa Monica School System in California. This was about 1986 or so. He was instrumental in helping me train as a thrower as I fought for a spot among top tier of shot putters and discus throwers ‘back in the day’.
Harold was a very driven, intelligent individual who knew far more about physical preparation than the average person, yet the cause of his death underscores a commonly seen mistake many older individuals when it comes to cardio-vascular training.
Harold felt very strongly about challenging his upper level heart rate through interval training; all of which I completely agree with. In order to make progress, you clearly need to get a bit out of your comfort zone and then pull back. Unfortunately, he failed to take into account the changes his system was undergoing despite his rigorous efforts to keep fit.
The problem is, no matter how regular and challenging you train; no matter how many years you put in with diligent consistency, your cardio-vascular system will degrade. Not fair I know. This is just nature.
Here are three important ways your body changes over time. The direct result is a decreased ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles.
The National Institute for Health had this excellent summary:
• A slight increase in the size of the heart, especially the left ventricle, is not uncommon. The heart wall thickens, so the amount of blood that the chamber can hold may actually decrease despite the increased overall heart size. The heart may fill more slowly. This left verticular hypertrophy is more common and more pronounced in athletes.
• Receptors called baroreceptors monitor the blood pressure and make changes to help maintain a fairly constant blood pressure when a person changes positions or activities. The baroreceptors become less sensitive with aging. This may explain why many older people have orthostatic hypotension, a condition in which the blood pressure falls when a person goes from lying or sitting to standing. This causes dizziness because there is less blood flow to the brain.
• The main artery from the heart (aorta) becomes thicker, stiffer, and less flexible. This makes the blood pressure higher and makes the heart work harder. The other arteries also thicken and stiffen. In general, most elderly people have a moderate increase in blood pressure.
This is but a short list of many changes that take place in our hearts, blood vessels and even the blood itself, which also changes over time.
Without turning this into a physiology lesson, here is what all this means to you.
While I am NOT a physician, I am certain one of more of these effects directly caused Harold Connolly’s fall and subsequent death.
• Angina (chest pain caused by temporarily reduced blood flow to the heart muscle), shortness of breath with exertion, and heart attack can result from coronary artery disease.
• Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) of various types can occur.
• Arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is very common. Fatty plaque deposits inside the blood vessels cause them to narrow and can totally block blood vessels.
• Congestive heart failure is also very common in the elderly. In people older than 75, congestive heart failure occurs 10 times more often than in younger adults.
• High blood pressure and orthostatic hypotension are more common with older age.
• Heart valve diseases are fairly common. Aortic stenosis, or narrowing of the aortic valve, is the most common valve disease in the elderly.
• Transient ischemic attacks (TIA) or strokes can occur if blood flow to the brain is disrupted.
So what can you do about it? If you do a lot of cardio work – which I find myself doing lately – make sure you monitor your heart rate closely. DO NOT RELY ON THE OLD FORMULA FOR MAXIMUM HEART RATE!
You may have heard of this: 220 – your age = your max heart rate.
For a 60 year old individual, this indicates a maximum of 160 beats per minute. Folks, this is a very high number! As you age, your heart may not physically be able to reach this number of beats per minute for all the reasons explained above. If you are using a heart rate monitor, see that you are at 140 beats per minute and therefore attempt to up the intensity until you reach this “target”, you may be putting your life at risk.
I use a Polar Heart Rate Monitor for every cardio workout so I can see my patterns and watch them over time. Many cardio machines at the gym also have HR monitors built in. I hope all my fellow exercisers out there use them. Keep up the interval training, but do so safely.
Stay healthy my friends…