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The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

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By Robert L. Herron, MA, CSCS*D, ACSM-CEP |

Life is complicated. In this case, I mean life in every sense of the word – including the processes that sustain it and experience that fill it. Not to pick favorites, but the heart and brain play leading roles in sustaining and experiencing life. Fortunately, we still have so much more to learn about them both.

As a society, we have come a long way from ancient civilizations that concluded the heart was the source of wisdom and knowledge. We now understand a lot more about the heart, how it helps sustain human life, and how disease can impair life – both in quality and years. Technology will only accelerate the rate at which we continue to discover and learn more about the heart and cardiovascular system.

Currently, heart disease in the #1 cause of death in the United States (stroke – a related cerebrovascular disease – is #5). Because of the ways in which humans naturally age, heart disease and other cardiovascular-related deaths will never be zero, but we can hope to slow the progression and limit the number of years during which one’s life is negatively impacted by dysfunction.

As for the brain, we know it is amazing – perhaps more so than we are able to comprehend at the moment. As a start, we have identified the primary functions of differing regions and are recognize that the brain is responsible for learning, memory, integration of sensory inputs and coordinates outputs, controls behavior, and helps construct our mental health. However, although we know heart health and mental health are integrated – comparatively speaking – we know less about the brain than the heart.  

For years, the medical consensus supported the view that negative psychological health was associated with poorer cardiovascular health. Earlier this year, the American Heart Association released a new scientific statement that also outlined how positive psychological health is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death.

Now, I know this sounds simple; and it is common to think that these viewpoints are just describing the same relationship on opposite ends of the spectrum; however, most tools are not designed to assess negative and positive psychological factors simultaneously – therefore, the factors are independently related to cardiovascular health. Additionally, the definition of wellness has expanded past the concept of only addressing one’s disease status and includes many aspects of life of living it to its fullest.  

This distinction is critical for practitioners working a variety of roles related to cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment. Conceptually, assessment tools and targeted therapies can help optimize the effectiveness health programs. For example, treating depression would differ from minimizing one’s anxiety or enhancing one’s sense of purpose. The mind-body connection also underscores the need for professionals that can deliver programs for mental health and psychotherapy to be an integral part of wellness programming aimed at reducing cardiovascular disease.

In short, I encourage everyone to take a holistic approach to their health and wellness. Seek out health professionals and support networks that help you do so. We know all aspects of wellness influence each other – even if we are just starting to learn more about the how and why.

Give the heart what it wants, better mental health!

Robert L. Herron is Acting Director of Sport Exercise Science at the United States Sports Academy.  Robert is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® with distinction from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CSCS*D®) and a Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM-CEP®). rherron@ussa.edu

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