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Do the Math: Why Raising Your Heart Rate Is Good for You

by Peter Holleran

   Many new-age souls have picked up the idea that every effort should be made to keep the heart rate slow, and the breath calm, slow, and quiet as well. Equanimity is for them the primary desirable quality in life, both for physical and mental health. Look at the hummingbird, they say, or the shrew, with rapid breathing and short lives, as contrasted with the tortoise and elephant, with much slower breathing and comparatively longer lifespan. Too much strenuous exercise, it is argued, can raise cortisol/stress chemistry levels in the blood, and leads to nasty accidents as well. There is something to be said about the latter, perhaps, but then who ever said life was without risk? The former arguments, however, can easily be turned on their heads with a little simple math. Besides, maybe runners such as Sri Chinmoy and the marathon monks of Japan aren't all wrong in combining exercise with meditation.

   There is no doubt that exercise will raise the heart rate, cause the breathing to speed up, and make one sweat. Even with the erroneous assumption that these are somehow bad (because they may take you away from that calm, meditative and contemplative state), reason with me as follows. Let's say your resting heart rate is 65 and you work out one hour a day, with a heart rate of 140. Your friend, who has a resting heart rate of 65, meditates for two hours (!) a day with his heart rate at 55. So your daily heart beat total is 60 x [(1 x 140) + (23 x 65)] = 98100, while that of your friend is 60 x [(2 x 55) + (22 x 65)] = 92400. Starting out it looks like the friend is better off. Let's look a year or two down the road, however, and see how the numbers change. Assuming some of the inner calm of your friend's meditation period carries through into his daily life, we will grant him an improvement in non-meditating resting heart rate to 60. We find our meditative non-exerciser has a total daily heart beat total of 60 x [(2 x 50) + (22 x 60)] = 85200. Our exerciser, however, achieves even greater benefit from his one hour a day workout. Even though his heart rate is highly elevated for that hour, the other 23 hours see it decline from 65 to 50, for a total of 60 x [(1 x 140) + (23 x 50)] = 77400.

   To allow a fair comparison with the meditator, if our exerciser also adds one hour of meditation and gets the same five beat-per-minute reduction in resting heart rate as his friend, then his daily total would reduce to 60 x [(1 x 50) + (1 x 140) + (22 x (50 - 5)] = 70400. This would tend to decrease for several more years as his heart and aerobic system gain further strength and efficiency. Compared to a sedentary individual with wide swings in stress levels, the difference is certainly immense.

   Not only does the exerciser improves his health and fitness, but his "inner life" slows down considerably, because along with his heart rate his respiration will also be slower and deeper. This automatically reduces stress and excess "wool gathering", even when not consciously working at it. Unless you are an ultramarathoner, sleep needs may also be reduced, allowing more time for meditation or creative work. The body will cease to be as much a burden with the myriad phantom complaints caused by a sedentary lifestyle. A fit body being less a burden, and thus less subjectively "dense", it will more easily be recognized in consciousness as an "idea" and thus more easily transcended. The mind will be calmer and clearer. If the exercise is enjoyed in beautiful outdoor settings you will be happier and the contemplative experience will be even further enhanced.

   Here is the crux. If, as they say in the East, "your breaths are numbered" (as contrasted with "your days are numbered" in the West), then slowing down the "breaths" should grant one more "days". You can do this by living in a cave (boring) , or spending a little time working out and enhancing the quality of life all day long.

   As with anything worthwhile, such fruit takes time to grow. First plant a few seeds and water them carefully. Enjoy the fresh air and sunshine along the way, while nurturing your budding new life. In a year or two you will hardly recognize "what" you once were.......then you can deal with the more spiritual problem of "who?" !