ARTICLES

Dr, Hans Selye has discovered striking new evidence that

You can "train" your heart to survive

Ken Lefolii October 8 1960
ARTICLES

Dr, Hans Selye has discovered striking new evidence that

You can "train" your heart to survive

Ken Lefolii October 8 1960

Dr, Hans Selye has discovered striking new evidence that

ARTICLES

Ken Lefolii

When I called on Hans Selye late this summer at his experimental medicine institute in Montreal, I found marked changes in a man I had last seen only a few months before. Beneath a deep tan his smoothly fleshed face had thinned down until the skin seemed to be stretched over the cheekbones. His lab coat folded around a frame clearly leaner than it had been, and in spite of his usual slight limp he walked with a spring closer to that of an Olympic athlete than a 53-year-old scientist.

The athletic comparison turned out to be exact. Since last spring, he told me, he has been getting up between four-thirty and five to put himself through a hard grind of calisthenics and distance running before starting his day’s work, and finishing the afternoon with two laps up and down a formidable flight of stairs on the side of Mount Royal. In three months he lost fifteen pounds by exercise alone.

But his fine physical edge is no more than a byproduct of his program. The muscle he is really working out is his heart; he is training it to survive the cardiac attacks that lead to death for half the population.

In this interview the scientist whose stress theories have shaped many of the medical ideas of our century tells why he now believes a man can train his heart to overcome weaknesses that cause it to fail.

You can "train" your heart to survive

Q Where do most medical men stand, at the moment, on the question of exercise for heart patients?

A They’re divided about equally. Some believe exercises will strengthen a weak heart; others believe any exercise at all is dangerous. As the papers give us every chance to see. Dwight Eisenhower's doctor. Paul Dudley White, believes golf is good for a weak heart. On the other hand, many highly respected specialists are just as sure that any out-ofthe-way exertion is an unjustifiable risk that may be fatal. This is one of the oldest controversies in medicine. and one of the gravest.

QWhat evidence is there for or against exercise in heart cases?

A The evidence we have from studying heart patients is hard to judge. Take the cases of two men. each with a weak heart. They both exercise, and one lives while the other dies. Does this prove that exercise killed one or saved the other? We really don’t know, and this is why medical opinion clashes.

ÜYour own view is now in favor of exercise, is it not?

A Yes. Six months ago I would have found it hard to give a logical reason for taking one side or the other. Now I'm convinced that careful and controlled exercise is the best possible defense against heart failure, unless the heart has been hit by such a severe attack that the slightest strain will destroy it. But I should tell you that my reasons are experimental and to some extent theoretical; 1 am speaking not as a doctor giving medical advice but as a scientist referring to investigations that 1 myselt find completely convincing.

QWhat makes you think exercise is the heart's best defense?

A Research. We discovered a combination of salts and hormones that sensitize an experimental animal's heart, so that when he is exposed to stress — and too much unaccustomed exercise is one kind of stress — he dies of heart failure. But suppose a rat was prepared for a heart attack in the way 1 have described, with this difference: before he was dosed and stressed, he was put on a physical-training pro-

gram, just like a professional athlete. And suppose the exercise we used to train him was the same exercise we planned to use later to kill him — say. running around on a treadmill until he had a heart attack. Would the trained rat live longer than any other rat?

The answer was yes. The trained rat lived. He lived long past the point where every untrained rat dies. In fact, he lived to the point where it was clear that when he died he wouldn't die of heart failure at all but of the multiple deterioration that takes place in the final stage of stress. We have repeated this experiment hundreds of times, and the trained rats always live. Exercise has given them a built-in resistance to the kind of heart failure that would otherwise destroy every one of them.

QBut a rat’s heart isn't built like a man's, and you have no way of knowing if the chemical changes you produce in the rats are the changes that are taking place in a heart patient. Aren’t you carrying your conclusions too far?

A A rat’s heart is anatomically different from a dog’s or a monkey’s, too. but the same experiments lead to the same results with dogs and monkeys. As for the chemical changes, they involve what is called electrolyte balance, and we know too little about this process in people to talk intelligently about the part it plays in heart failure. The only answer to your question is this: it’s possible I’m carrying my conclusions too far. yes. But scientific investigation is idle when it doesn't lead to conclusions, or when the investigator is too timid to draw the conclusions his experiments lead him to. In this case. 1 not only draw them, but 1 will remain convinced by them until somebody proves they're wrong.

QHave you learned what happens when the heart is toughened by one kind of training but is exposed to a different kind of stress — the situation you would have if a man trained himself to skip rope and then overexerted himself chopping wood?

Al have. Medically this is probably the most important conclusion of all. and these experiments turned out to be one of the most exciting things that have ever happened to me in a laboratory. We learned that a rat who has been conditioned by running on a treadmill can survive the stress of exposure to extreme cold as well as the stress of running. A rat who has been trained by gradual exposure to in-

creasing cold can stand the stress of being injected with noradrenaline as well as the stress of nearly freezing. The same thing holds true of other kinds of stress.

The word for this is cross resistance. 1 believe it has infinitely meaningful implications for the management of heart disease. In its simplest form, this is what it tells us:

By exercising intelligently, a man can train his heart to resist attacks that might otherwise kill him. It doesn’t matter if he has been training with calisthenics and is later attacked not by physical stress but by emotional stress — the kind of stress that arises when a man has gone bankrupt or been told of a death in the family. Cross resistance will help his heart stand off the attack in any case. It is a little like the White Knight's armor, which shields him equally well against the Black Knight's sword and the dragon's breath of fire.

Q Would you. then, advise everybody to start right in on a set routine of exercises?

A Not indiscriminately, no. Too much exertion before the heart is conditioned to resist it can be dangerous, even fatal, as I've said. Anybody who has a known heart weakness should exercise with extreme caution, and only within the limits of his own strength. I would say. though, that anybody in normal health who doesn't make planned exercise as much a part of his routine as sleep is running an unnecessary risk.

Q1 take it this is a risk that, for your own part, you’re avoiding?

A As well as 1 can. I’m spending about an hour a day on calisthenics — push-ups, sit-ups. kneebends. that kind of thing — and running on the fiat and on stairs. This carries a slight risk of its own, I've found: at about five one morning when l was running on the University of Montreal campus a couple of cruising policemen picked me up for identification, and 1 can't say 1 blame them in the circumstances. But the medical risks. I’m sure, «re receding — those stairs don't look nearly as steep to me as they used to.

0 How do you feel, doctor?

A Fine. ★