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Firefighter study makes strong case for warming up

Despite universal acceptance of the value of warming up, many short-circuit the process, eager to get into the productive stages of their exercise.

Just because the heart is always working that doesn’t mean it is adequately warmed up. This point was brought home in striking fashion years ago in a study of firefighters.

Researchers placed electrodes on firefighters to monitor their heart activity electrocardiographically (through an EKG) throughout a typical workday. They came up with some surprising findings. When firefighters, asleep at the firehouse, were awakened in the middle of the night with a loud fire alarm, their heart rate surged from a very low resting level of, say, 70 beats per minute to as high as 180. This suggested that firefighting could place extreme stress on the heart, over and above the physical requirements of firefighting.

This led to a follow-up study in which the impact of sudden and highly intense demands on the heart was measured. These same firefighters were asked to move from a state of complete rest, sitting in a chair, to jumping on a treadmill that was set at a high elevation with a fast running speed. The combination of elevation and speed was selected to exhaust the firefighters in 30 seconds or less.

The researchers found that when the heart had to respond so quickly and so dramatically, it didn’t do well. Many of the firefighters demonstrated severe EKG abnormalities, which suggested a lack of adjustment in blood flow to the heart muscle. These were young, highly and fit, with no history of heart disease.

The researchers were alarmed at the implications for older individuals who may not be completely healthy and how such an effort could push them over the edge and into a heart attack. The message was clear – warm up the heart before performing demanding exercise.

Other activities where warming up is essential are interactive video games. The Nintendo Wii is a wonderful way of getting folks up and moving, simulating tennis, bowling and other sports.

But as in real life, it’s necessary to warm up and to place a time limit on play so as to avoid overuse injuries in the joints. Ironically, from e-mails I have received about this, it seems that parents may be more at risk than their kids. Why is that?

I suspect a contributing factor might be that parents are more likely to jump into a game completely cold and without any warming up. And since the older joints of parents aren’t as flexible as those of their kids, warming up older joints would be that much more important.

The bottom line is that in some activities, warming up may be crucial to avoiding injury. The best kind of warm-up is task-specific – a watered-down version of the real thing you are about to engage in.

Bryant Stamford is professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover (Ind.) College. Address questions or suggestions to “The Body Shop,” The Courier-Journal, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, KY 40201-7431.

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