May 7, 2008 / 6:24 PM / 11 years ago

Workouts sculpt heart as well as muscles

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Exercise can cause structural changes in the heart, and these changes vary depending on the type of training an athlete is engaged in, new research shows.

A jogger runs by cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington, March 27, 2008. Exercise can cause structural changes in the heart, and these changes vary depending on the type of training an athlete is engaged in, new research shows. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

In a study, researchers found that endurance athletes showed an increase in the size of both their left and right ventricles after 90 days of team training, while athletes who only did strength training had excessive growth in their left ventricles, but no change in their right ventricle size.

And while the ability of the left ventricle to fully relax between beats, or diastolic function, was enhanced in the endurance athletes, it worsened in the strength trainers, Dr. Aaron L. Baggish of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and colleagues found.

Small studies have found that the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, is larger in trained athletes, although there has been no research on how exercise affects the structure of the right ventricle. It is also unclear whether exercise itself changes the structure of the heart or whether individuals with unusually large left ventricles are more likely to become athletes.

To investigate, Baggish and colleagues studied 40 endurance athletes and 24 strength athletes, examining their hearts with echocardiography before and after 90 days of team training. The endurance group included male and female long-distance rowers, while the strength group consisted of male football players.

While left ventricle mass increased in both groups, the endurance athletes also showed better diastolic function in their left ventricle, and enlargement and more efficient contraction and relaxation in both of the lower chambers of the heart, or atria.

But the strength-trained athletes actually had hypertrophy, or excessive growth, in the muscle of the left ventricle, and reduced diastolic function, but no other structural changes.

The findings “strongly refute” the idea that people are able to become competitive athletes due to their heart structure, and instead demonstrate that it is athletic training itself that is largely responsible for “athlete’s heart,” the investigators write.

The results could also point the way to making tailored recommendations for rehabilitation and recreational exercise for people with heart problems, they add.

SOURCE: Journal of Applied Physiology, April 2008.

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