Being that February is Heart Health Month, I figured I would put together some info about heart-related issues and diving. Having a healthy heart when you're a scuba diver is extremely important especially when you consider that according to DAN (Divers Alert Network), almost a third of diving fatalities are associated with an acute cardiac event.
The good news is that much of the risk of experiencing a cardiac event can be mitigated through proper training just as many other risks involved in diving can be mitigated through proper training. The training for the heart is just a little different than the training for standard scuba skills.
The primary training would be to keep yourself active with regular cardiovascular exercise. By all means, I strongly suggest consulting your primary care physician for cardiovascular exercise recommendations. Personally, because so much of my life involves scuba diving, many of my workout routines are timed to correlate to diving.
For instance, my standard cardiovascular workout will be approximately 45 minutes, which is about the duration of a good dive. Throughout the course of the workout, I push myself at different intervals almost as though I were simulating responding to an unexpected circumstance (sudden current or assisting a panicked diver). Then during the last 3 to 5 minutes, I push myself as close to my limit as I can as though I were simulating responding to a possible life-threatening emergency at or near the end of a dive. I then spend another 7 to 10 minutes cooling down, but increasing overall stamina with a light workout such as a brisk walk.
Some extremely important things to keep in mind are that during the end of the workout when I am pushing myself to my limit, you really have to be aware of what your body is telling you and don't hesitate to slow down and take a break for a minute to catch your breath and allow your heart to recover. The other factor to keep in mind is that creating the workout habit and overcoming discouragement is a necessity.
The best way to create the habit is by choosing a mandatory minimum workout period. When choosing a minimum workout time, it's important to choose a time that is low enough that you can commit to completing it on low motivation days, but high enough that you can feel a sense of accomplishment at completing it. A good time to shoot for (in my opinion) is 20 minutes.
An example of using this mandatory minimum workout period is that when you encounter those days when you really, really aren't feeling up to working out you force yourself to spend that minimum amount of time doing an extremely light cardio workout. I've often found that 15 minutes into a light cardio workout on those low motivation days ends up turning into an extra long workout because somehow my motivation increases as my heart rate remains boosted during the workout. And even on those days when I stop after 20 minutes, I at least don't feel discouraged because I know that I haven't let myself down by skipping a workout. Instead, I have a feeling of accomplishment in knowing that I at least completed a workout when I really, really didn't want to.
Another way to overcome discouragement is to ensure that you create a log of your workouts. Ideally these logs will be in a digital format so that you can easily sort and search the data to see your progress over a long period of time. During those times when you feel as though you are no longer progressing (or worse, you feel as though you are making negative progress), you should take a moment to view your progress over the entire period since beginning your workout log.
It's important to understand that it is common to encounter plateaus in your workout performance and that changing things up when you encounter a plateau is key to your success.
Diving (under ideal circumstances) is a leisurely activity, but as we all know, circumstances aren't always ideal. Its those times when we find ourselves responding to an unexpected event that we inevitably push ourselves to our limit and increase the stress being put on the heart. By having a regular workout routine in which you become accustomed to pushing yourself to your limit, you will find that you are more easily able to identify your limits when responding to those unexpected events. The better you are able to identify your limits, the better able you will be in keeping an unexpected event from turning into an emergency circumstance.
In life, often the best advice to a problem is to follow your heart. The same is true in diving. For additional information on the topic of heart health and diving, check out diversalertnetwork.org.