Heart Healthy Exercise at High Altitude: What You Need to Know
Not only is Colorado one of the most active and heart-healthy states in the country, but most of the state is also at high elevation. Denver and the other Front Range cities are over 5,000 feet, while many of the mountain towns are over 8,000 feet. Therefore, staying active in Colorado typically involves exercising at high altitude. While this provides a variety of performance benefits for competitive athletes, it also requires individuals with a history of heart issues to take certain precautions.
How Does Exercising at High Altitude Impact Your Body?
Exercising at high altitude forces your body to work harder during periods of peak exertion. This occurs because the oxygen content in the air is lower at high altitudes, and this “thinner” air reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood. As a result, your bloodstream isn’t able to deliver the proper amount of oxygen to your muscles for maximum performance while exercising. This results in:
- Reduced aerobic power
- Diminished endurance levels
- Faster muscle fatigue
In addition, exercising at high altitude will cause an increase in your heart rate in order to increase the blood circulation to your muscles. In other words, your heart must work harder to pump more blood to your muscles to compensate for the reduced levels of oxygen your muscles are receiving. This process can place additional stress on your heart, which may be problematic for individuals who either have or are predisposed to heart disease.
Your Body Adjusts Over Time
The good news is that your body begins to adjust to the lower oxygen content in the air and will eventually begin producing additional red blood cells as you acclimate to the higher altitude. The length of time it takes for your body to adjust depends on the altitude – the higher the elevation, the longer the acclimation period. It can take approximately two weeks for your body to acclimate to exercising at 6,500 feet and about a month when exercising at 8,000 feet.
For people who have just moved to Colorado, precautions should be taken when exercising during the first month you live here. This is especially important if you’re predisposed to heart disease. However, once your body adjusts, you should be able to resume your regular exercise regimen without concern.
Exercise Tips for People Visiting Colorado
If you’re planning on skiing, hiking or engaging in other strenuous activities while visiting Colorado, the following tips will help you reduce the risk of an adverse reaction to high altitude exercise:
- Ease into strenuous activity – It’s always best to take it easy the first day you’re at high altitude. Stick to light physical activity on this first day, and gradually ramp up the intensity of your exercise as your body acclimates.
- Be aware of other factors that can place additional stress on your heart – Environmental stressors such as cold, wind chill and jet lag can amplify the stressful effects high altitude exercise has on your heart. If you’re encountering cold, windy conditions, allow for a more gradual ramp-up period before engaging in strenuous exercise.
- Get plenty of sleep – It’s critical to get a good night’s sleep when exercising at high altitude. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, which is common after ascending to high elevations, consider taking a short sauna or whirlpool hot bath before going to bed to improve the quality of your sleep.
- Watch for signs of mountain sickness or pulmonary edema – Common symptoms of mountain sickness include headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, problems sleeping, and decreased appetite. Common symptoms of high-altitude pulmonary edema (a buildup of fluid in the lungs) include extreme lethargy, fever, rapid heart rate and coughing up pink mucus. If you notice signs of either of these conditions, stop exercising at once. In cases of pulmonary edema, you should consult your doctor right away to avoid potentially life-threatening complications.
- Drink lots of water – High altitude environments are typically associated with lower humidity levels. Therefore, it’s critical to stay hydrated when exercising at higher elevations. It’s also best to minimize alcohol consumption since alcohol can result in additional dehydration.
South Denver Cardiology Associates Can Help You Exercise Safely at High Altitude
If you’re predisposed to heart disease or have a heart condition, South Denver Cardiology Associates can help you exercise safely at high altitude. Our team of cardiologists can perform comprehensive diagnostic testing to evaluate the condition of your heart and advise you as to what types of exercise you can perform safely.
In addition, the exercise specialists at our medical fitness gym can help you develop an individualized exercise program that will help you improve your cardiovascular health.
Contact us today to schedule an appointment. South Denver Cardiology Associates serves patients in the South Denver area and Littleton.
As with any health concerns, your specific treatment program should be discussed thoroughly with your primary care physician as well as any specialists who may need to be consulted – like a cardiologist.Sign Up