Pain-Free Running and Walking Workouts to Boost Your Heart’s Health

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Chase Away Poor Heart Health with ChiRunning and ChiWalking

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S. today. What causes an unhealthy heart? Here’s a list of the four leading culprits:

  • Lack of regular exercise – disallows the free flow of oxygen in your bloodstream which can compromise your immune system.
  • Eating processed foods high in trans fats and hydrogenated oils – can thicken your blood, leaving plaque on the walls of veins and arteries, which in turn makes your heart work harder than it needs to.
  • Stress and anxiety – increased levels of epinephrine which increases muscle tension, inhibits fat burning, raises blood pressure and increases your heart rate.
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol and refined sugars – can compromise the immune system and inhibit the body’s production of dopamine (the sleep regulating neurochemical).

I am guilty of every one of these … at various periods during the year. But I make it a point to not make any of these culprits a regular part of my lifestyle. I do my best to avoid processed foods and refined sugar at all costs, but I still slip during holidays and festive events. I try instead to be mindful of how I’d like to experience life when I’m 80 years old, and it helps keep me on track with my moment-to-moment choices. Use whatever incentive works for you, but it will have more “bite” when you can tie it to quality of life and a real experience of how good you can feel.

Diet and exercise seem to be the two key factors in maintaining a healthy heart. I’m going to focus on exercise – pain-free running and walking –  and which workouts will do the most to insure your heart stays healthy for years to come.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise is important for building your body’s oxygen transport system, so that you can provide more oxygen to your muscles and organs with each breath. In ChiRunning, the pain-free running and walking workouts that build this high-efficiency oxygen-transport system are aerobic workouts, done at a low-to-medium intensity level for relatively long periods of time. A good example would be LSD (Long Slow Distance) running or walking, where you’re moving along at a sustained effort level and elevated (but doable) heart rate for an extended period. This trains your body to burn a higher ratio of fat and conserve glycogen in order to remain mobile for extended periods. In the process, your body produces increased levels of serotonin (the “feel good” neurochemical) and dopamine (the sleep-regulating neurochemical). Increased amounts of the former help to calm the nerves; and increased levels of the latter help you sleep better. So, you can see why these two “anti-anxiety” neurochemicals can keep your life more calm and your heart healthy.

BUT, if you run or walk your aerobic workouts too fast, your body produces more epinephrine (the “fight or flight” neurochemical) which increases your heart rate and blood pressure (both of which overwork your heart) while inhibiting the production of serotonin and dopamine. Epinephrine also inhibits the burning of fat, and instead, increases the burning of glycogen as the primary fuel.

Another thing that happens when you do your longer pain-free running and walking workouts too fast is that your body produces endorphins which are a natural pain-killer. In one way, it’s good that your body has a way of managing the input from your pain sensors because, who likes to feel pain? But the downside is that when you can’t feel pain, you might have a tendency to over-work your muscles or over-train, which is very hard on your heart health, and can lower levels of dopamine in your system. One of the signs of over-training is having poor sleep habits.

The Cardio Workout

What is commonly called a Cardio Workout – running with shorter, faster bursts of speed – also helps to strengthen muscles and increase your range of motion. This is the workout to do if you aspire to be a faster runner or walker. Once a week the cardio workout of short fast intervals with a resting jog break in between is a great idea for the heart, but for the long haul (figuratively and literally) it is the aerobic workouts that are most important.

The American Heart Association recommends we do a minimum of 30-60 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise 3 – 4 days each week. If you’re walking, we recommend 5 times a week. One of your weekly workouts should be a 30-minute Cardio workout. The rest of your shorter runs can be 30-45 minutes of nice, comfortable running or walking. Then, do a weekly 60+ minute workout at a long slow distance pace.

A Healthy Heart

Here are some “healthy heart” numbers to shoot for:
RHR – Resting heart rate < 65 bpm
Blood pressure < 120/80
HDL > 40mg/dl (good cholesterol – the higher the better)
LDL < 100mg/d (bad cholesterol)
Heart Rate Recovery of at least X beats per minute

Here’s what these numbers mean:
Poor: less than 12 bpm recovery 
Fair: 12-20 bpm recovery
Good: 20-30 bpm recovery
Excellent: 30-40 bpm recovery
Outstanding: > 40 bpm recovery

(Note: Any recovery rate greater than 35 bpm means you have almost zero chance of sudden death by heart disease!)

Here are the at-home tests that you can use to check:

A.) your Resting Heart Rate and
To measure your RHR, take your pulse for 15 seconds, first thing in the morning (before getting out of bed) and multiply by 4. Log that information and check your RHR monthly. Your RHR should be 60-100 bpm depending on your age and physical condition (lower is better). If you have a RHR higher than 100 bpm you should consult your doctor.

B.) your Heart Rate Recovery. But, make sure you know and keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well. All of these numbers should be recorded in your training log, so you can watch your progress week by week and track the effectiveness of your work. Your Heart Rate Recovery is how fast your heart rate decreases after exercise.

Do a 5-10 minute warm-up and then increase your heart rate by running or walking at a fast rate for 30 – 60 seconds.
Drop to a slow walk and immediately take your pulse (count for 15 seconds and multiple by 4). Immediately after your brief, high-intensity run/walk, take your heart rate. Then, take it again 2 minutes after. Add these two heartrates and divide by 2, and that is your average heartbeat recovery per minute.

We highly encourage you to monitor your progress in a fitness journal so you can verify the effectiveness of your pain-free running or walking fitness program. Tracking your progress also helps you to stay on track if you’re looking for long-term results like a lower cholesterol ratio, lower triglyceride levels, lower resting heart rate and lower BMI (Body Mass Index). Begin by getting a physical with all the accompanying blood work. This will give you your beginning benchmark to enter into your journal.

The health of your heart is in your hands. And by improving the health of your heart you will improve the quality of your whole life.


Posted in Lifestyle

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