Heart-Felt Lessons from the Olympics

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health, Heart Attack
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Ah, the joys of summer—one of which this year is watching the Summer Olympics. I’ll confess I plan my evenings at home so I can view the London competitions, and I find them compelling for two reasons.

On a personal level, watching the athletes takes me back to my teenage years when I used to walk to the high school for football, gymnastics, and wrestling practices. Like the athletes competing now, I had high hopes my dedication to sports would open the door to a college scholarship.

I ended up focusing on wrestling, which taught me lifelong lessons in goal setting, focusing my attention and intention, stretching beyond my limits, and team spirit. Making weight and long hours of repetitive practice got me more than a scholarship: it helped mold my core belief in personal effort and perseverance to reach both short- and long-term goals. In fact, I tried out for the Olympics during my senior summer before college, but fell just short of the high standards to be met. So, I guess you could say I know what it takes!

Now, as a cardiologist I’m very concerned about the health of those Olympic athletes—and the very real possibility of cardiac arrest, even in fit individuals who are so young.

If I could speak with each Olympic athlete personally here’s what I would tell them. It’s the same advice I give you if you’re concerned about your heart.

  • Get an electrocardiogram (ECG). My hat goes off to United Kingdom cardiologist Dr. Sanjay Sharma who, unable to save a 32-year old marathon runner who experienced cardiac arrest during a race, mandated that UK Olympians undergo pre-screening that includes a routine electrocardiogram (ECG).  I resonate with his motivation after such a heartbreaking loss. According to the American Heart Association, 600 deaths occur annually during sporting events. Even the International Olympic Committee recommends an ECG screening—but is yet to mandate it—and I pray that athletes are heeding that advice.
  • Avoid quick starts and stops when exercising. Despite how much bad press marathons get, far more dangerous are activities with quick start-stop action, like racquetball. You’re either going 100 miles an hour to get the back, or you’re completely stopped—and you’re playing in tight quarters so you have little space to slow down. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if more people have a cardiac event that’s not caused by a pre-existing condition on a racquetball court than they do running a marathon.
  • Give your heart the right nutritional support. I recently read that Olympic rower and former gold medal winner Susan Francia takes vitamin D3, B-complex vitamins, fish oil, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and D-ribose. All of those nutrients are important—but magnesium and D-ribose are especially critical. They’re part of what I call the “Awesome Foursome,” which includes 200 mg of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), 200-600 mg of magnesium, and 2-3 grams of broad spectrum carnitine daily—plus 5 grams of D-ribose two to three times a day.

Now it's your turn: Do you think we should prescreen our athletes?

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