Slow Your Beating Heart: Beans vs. Exercise

Slow Your Beating Heart: Beans vs. Exercise
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A cup a day of beans, chickpeas, or lentils for three months may slow resting heart rate as much as exercising for 250 hours on a treadmill.

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The accumulated weight of evidence linking elevated resting heart rate to a shortened lifespan—even in apparently healthy individuals—makes a strong case for it to be considered in the assessment of risk. It’s got strong advantages. Taking one’s pulse is cheap, takes little time, it’s understandable to people, and it’s something everyone can do, at home, to measure their progress to become an active participant in their own health management.

Every ten beats per minute increase is associated with a 10 to 20% increase in the risk of premature death. There seems to be a continuous increase in risk with increasing heart rate, at least for values above a beat a second. So, we can just look at our watch, and if our heart is beating faster than the seconds going by—even when we’re sitting quietly, then we have to do something about it, especially when we start getting up to 80 or 90. Men with no apparent evidence of heart disease with a pulse of 90 may have five times higher risk of sudden cardiac death—meaning their first symptom is their last—compared to those down in the safety zone. Living up around 90 increases heart disease risk at a level similar to smoking.

If you ask most doctors, though, 90 is considered normal. The accepted limits of heart rate have long been set at 60 and 100 beats per minute. How did they come up with that? It was adopted as a matter of convenience, just based on the scale of the squares on EKG paper. A historical accident, like the QWERTY keyboard, that just became the norm.

60 to 100 doesn’t even represent the bell curve. These cardiologists measured the heart rate of 500 people, and concluded that 45 to 95 was a better definition of normal, rounding to 50 to 90, which a survey of leading cardiologists concurred with. Now, we know that normal doesn’t necessarily mean optimal, but doctors shouldn’t tell people with heart rates in the 50s that their heart rate is too low. In fact, these people may be right where they should be.

Certainly, a heart rate higher than 80 should ring an alarm bell, but what can we do about it? Exercise is one obvious possibility. Ironically, you make the heart go faster so that the rest of the time your heart beats slower.

The public health benefits of physical exercise, especially for heart protection, are widely accepted, and among the many biological mechanisms proposed to account for this risk-reducing effect is autonomic nervous system regulation of the heart. That’s your brain’s ability to slow down the resting beat of your heart.

If you put people through a 12-week aerobic conditioning program of cycling, StairMaster, and running on a treadmill, you can drop their resting heart rate down from around 69 to about 66; so, a three beat per minute drop. And, of course, you have to keep it up; stop exercising, and your resting heart rate goes right back up.

Exercise is just one way to drop our heart rate, though. The way to our heart may also be through our stomach. What if, instead of three months of exercise, you did three months of beans? A cup a day of beans, chickpeas, or lentils. The first randomized controlled trial of beans for the treatment of diabetes. And indeed, participants successfully improved their blood sugar control, dropping their average A1C level from 7.4 to 6.9, but this was also the first study to ever assess the effect of bean consumption on heart rate, and, indeed, one of the few to determine the effect on heart rate of any dietary intervention. This is particularly important in diabetics, since having a higher resting heart rate not only increases their risk of death just like everybody else, but also appears to predict greater risk of diabetic complications, such as damage to the nerves and eyes.

So, how did beans do? A 3.4 beat drop in heart rate—just as much as the 250 hours on a treadmill. We’re not sure why beans are as powerful as exercise in bringing down one’s resting heart rate. In addition to the potential direct beneficial effects of all the good stuff in legumes, there is also the potential displacement value of reducing some of the animal protein foods. Regardless, we should consider eating pulses for our pulse.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Rwk / Flickr, Derrick Coetzee / Flickr, samwebster/Flickr, Global Crop Diversity Trust/Flickr, Ellen Reid and Shinya Suzuki / Flickr

The accumulated weight of evidence linking elevated resting heart rate to a shortened lifespan—even in apparently healthy individuals—makes a strong case for it to be considered in the assessment of risk. It’s got strong advantages. Taking one’s pulse is cheap, takes little time, it’s understandable to people, and it’s something everyone can do, at home, to measure their progress to become an active participant in their own health management.

Every ten beats per minute increase is associated with a 10 to 20% increase in the risk of premature death. There seems to be a continuous increase in risk with increasing heart rate, at least for values above a beat a second. So, we can just look at our watch, and if our heart is beating faster than the seconds going by—even when we’re sitting quietly, then we have to do something about it, especially when we start getting up to 80 or 90. Men with no apparent evidence of heart disease with a pulse of 90 may have five times higher risk of sudden cardiac death—meaning their first symptom is their last—compared to those down in the safety zone. Living up around 90 increases heart disease risk at a level similar to smoking.

If you ask most doctors, though, 90 is considered normal. The accepted limits of heart rate have long been set at 60 and 100 beats per minute. How did they come up with that? It was adopted as a matter of convenience, just based on the scale of the squares on EKG paper. A historical accident, like the QWERTY keyboard, that just became the norm.

60 to 100 doesn’t even represent the bell curve. These cardiologists measured the heart rate of 500 people, and concluded that 45 to 95 was a better definition of normal, rounding to 50 to 90, which a survey of leading cardiologists concurred with. Now, we know that normal doesn’t necessarily mean optimal, but doctors shouldn’t tell people with heart rates in the 50s that their heart rate is too low. In fact, these people may be right where they should be.

Certainly, a heart rate higher than 80 should ring an alarm bell, but what can we do about it? Exercise is one obvious possibility. Ironically, you make the heart go faster so that the rest of the time your heart beats slower.

The public health benefits of physical exercise, especially for heart protection, are widely accepted, and among the many biological mechanisms proposed to account for this risk-reducing effect is autonomic nervous system regulation of the heart. That’s your brain’s ability to slow down the resting beat of your heart.

If you put people through a 12-week aerobic conditioning program of cycling, StairMaster, and running on a treadmill, you can drop their resting heart rate down from around 69 to about 66; so, a three beat per minute drop. And, of course, you have to keep it up; stop exercising, and your resting heart rate goes right back up.

Exercise is just one way to drop our heart rate, though. The way to our heart may also be through our stomach. What if, instead of three months of exercise, you did three months of beans? A cup a day of beans, chickpeas, or lentils. The first randomized controlled trial of beans for the treatment of diabetes. And indeed, participants successfully improved their blood sugar control, dropping their average A1C level from 7.4 to 6.9, but this was also the first study to ever assess the effect of bean consumption on heart rate, and, indeed, one of the few to determine the effect on heart rate of any dietary intervention. This is particularly important in diabetics, since having a higher resting heart rate not only increases their risk of death just like everybody else, but also appears to predict greater risk of diabetic complications, such as damage to the nerves and eyes.

So, how did beans do? A 3.4 beat drop in heart rate—just as much as the 250 hours on a treadmill. We’re not sure why beans are as powerful as exercise in bringing down one’s resting heart rate. In addition to the potential direct beneficial effects of all the good stuff in legumes, there is also the potential displacement value of reducing some of the animal protein foods. Regardless, we should consider eating pulses for our pulse.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Rwk / Flickr, Derrick Coetzee / Flickr, samwebster/Flickr, Global Crop Diversity Trust/Flickr, Ellen Reid and Shinya Suzuki / Flickr

Doctor's Note

What is that about a shortened lifespan? See my video Finger on the Pulse of Longevity.

Having “normal” risk factor values in a society where it’s normal to drop dead of preventable diseases like heart disease is not necessarily a good thing. Learn more with When Low Risk Means High Risk, Everything in Moderation? Even Heart Disease?, and How Not to Die from Heart Disease.

For more on the musical fruit, see:

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