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A heartfelt thanks to the most important muscle, and ways to make it stronger

By Leslie Barker

A little quiz: Which of your muscles is most important? And which is the hardest working?

The answers are your heart and…your heart.

Sure, your glutes, abs, biceps, triceps, quadriceps and countless more of your 640-plus muscles get a workout during an Orangetheory Fitness class. But keep your heart at the forefront of your focus. Because when your heart is healthy, so are you – physically, emotionally, mentally.

“There are so many things we want people to know,” says Eduardo Sanchez, MD and Chief Medical Officer of Prevention at the American Heart Association, “so I’ll try to be pithy: Heart health equals a longer, healthier life.”

Heart health helps prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke, he says, which remain the No. 1 and No. 5 killers of people in America. Heart health equals reduced cognitive decline, which can help delay or lower the chances of getting Alzheimer’s or dementia. Heart health equals strong emotional health; specifically, helping keep severe and frequent episodes of depression much lower. Heart health means better sleep.

“Heart health might be the silver bullet,” he says, “and we want to promote that because it’s so important.”

Orangetheory values heart health and collaborates year-round with the American Heart Association. Which is why during Heart Health Month every February, Orangetheory hosts 90-minute fundraising classes for the American Heart Association. It’s why members enthusiastically participate in Go Red Day. And why Orangetheory’s social channels “go red” with heart-related content during February.

Orangetheory values science-backed physical activity recommendations. And physical activity – along with healthy eating, weight management, and keeping numbers like blood pressure and cholesterol in check – is one of the leading ways to obtain and maintain a healthy heart.

“Physical activity,” says Orangetheory research scientist Brittany Masteller, Ph.D., “is one of the modifiable risk factors for heart disease. It’s often talked about like a ‘medicine’ when taken in the right dose.”

So what is the right dose? According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity per week, at least 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both; plus strength training at least two days a week.

We’re the leader in the “equivalent combination of both” recommended guidelines. That’s because of MVPA, a science-based acronym that stands for moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity. So while you may have never heard of it, you live it in every Orangetheory class.

At Orangetheory, we use interval training – in which the heart rate is raised to 80+ percent of its maximum and then reduced to lower intensities repeatedly during each class. Our world-class coaches help members adjust their running speed, rowing cadence, and weight selection to elicit a specific heart rate response..

“Our workouts use a combination of cardiorespiratory training and resistance training to provide a well-rounded experience aimed at improving health,” Dr. Masteller says. “Benefits of interval training include improved fitness, improved glucose sensitivity, improvement in skeletal muscle function, and improved circulatory function.”

Although everyday physical movement is imperative, doing the suggested two or three Orangetheory workouts a week more than meets the national activity guidelines. Thus, members have energy and time to spare; yet another way they enjoy another stalwart of Orangetheory: More Life – inside and outside the studio.

Which brings us back to that all important muscle: The heart. As such, Dr. Sanchez says, “higher intensity within reason results in stronger muscles and a stronger heart. When you do higher intensity activity, it forces your heart to work harder. Like any muscle, working it harder helps condition that muscle a little bit better.”

Of course, our bodies won’t let us work harder all the time; that’s the beauty of high intensity interval training (HITT), he says. “Like anything else, always do it within reason.”

But using “should” when it comes to everyone incorporating intensity into a workout may be too strong a word, he says. Adding intensity, though, certainly won’t hurt. So even if you’re not in class, you can add intensity to a walk, a swim, even a bout of vacuuming your carpet.

“You get value from movement, but evidence shows high intensity can add to the value of physical activity,” Dr. Sanchez says. “Somehow your body can accommodate and compensate when you do the same thing every time. It seems to respond better to a mix.

“You can have good healthy heart muscle and you can have very fit healthy muscle. Both are very good; the fit one is probably better.”

So get ready to name-drop the phrase MVPA into your everyday conversations (or at least those with your Orangetheory compatriots) and, more importantly, to incorporate it.

“Just deciding to get started should be celebrated,” Dr. Masteller says.

Here are some tips to do just that, and to keep the movement going.

All movement counts. “If you can move a finger, move that finger,” Dr. Sanchez says. “Movement equals a longer, healthier, emotionally better life.”

Find what works for YOU. “If you don’t like to run, walk,” he says. “If you don’t like to walk, swim. If you don’t like to swim, garden. If you like to do housekeeping, do it vigorously. There is always something. Moving is the critical thing.”

Build a support system. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, Dr. Masteller says, “adults are more likely to participate in physical activity when they are supported by others.

It’s never too late to start. “Incorporating physical activity into your life will have benefits regardless or when you start,” Dr. Masteller says. If you haven’t worked out in awhile though, checking in with your doctor first is a good idea.

Set SMART and reasonable goals. “SMART,” she says, “stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Rather than jumping in head-first, start slowly and in a way that feels manageable with your ability, life and schedule.”

Remember why you’re doing this. “With physical activity,” Dr. Sanchez says, “you don’t have to be trying to achieve a sculpted body look. It’s about the health of your heart.”