Impact of Endurance Exercise on the Heart Varies by Sport, Study Says

A new Brigham and Women's study helps define normal versus abnormal heart structure for athletes.

If you think that by rowing, or running, or playing tennis, you’re improving your heart health no matter what, it may be time to think again.

According to a new study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers, the heart’s response to endurance exercise training varies significantly, depending on the specific sport. The new research study is called “Endurance Exercise-Induced Cardiac Remodeling:  Not All Sports Are Created Equal,” and was presented by Dr. Meagan Murphy Wasfy, a clinical and research fellow in the Cardiovascular Medicine Division of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, at the American College of Cardiology’s 63rd Annual Scientific Session on March 30.

The study looked at two different endurance sports: long distance running and rowing. It examined whether these two sports led to different forms of adaptive changes in heart structure and function, by using a echocardiography (heart ultrasound) in college athletes.  

“Endurance sports stimulate the heart chambers to grow, which helps pump the extra blood needed for long periods of exercise,” Wasfy explained at the event. “However, rowing causes moment-to-moment spikes in the blood pressure with each stroke, which put a greater pressure load on the heart than running.”

According to the study’s results, the rowers had a thicker heart muscle–left ventricular hypertrophy–(LVH) than runners. “Thickening of the heart muscle in patients with heart disease is often associated with worse heart function,” Wasfy says. “However, in this study, the rowers with LVH actually had better diastolic (relaxing) function of the heart than the runners.”

Further work is required to determine why the heart adapts differently for each sport, and how these differences might help athletes’ hearts deal better with the stresses imposed by their individual sports, Wasfy says.

Wasfy also says that she hopes to further examine the optimal use of specific endurance sports as part of treatment for patients with common forms of heart disease.

Doctors are already prescribing “outdoor time” and “bicycles as transportation,” perhaps prescribing specific forms of cardio is next?