Archives for December 2014

Can Cold Weather Exercise Put Your Heart at Risk?

winter runningOf course it can. In fact, winter is officially heart attack season! Research shows that there are 53% more heart attacks in winter than summer (yikes). Excessive holiday celebration is one factor. The temperature outside and it’s effect on your hearth health is another.

Couch Potato to Snow Angel

To understand the impact of cold weather on your heart health, let’s look at an example. It’s late December and you are in full hibernation mode. Other than the occasional holiday party, your primary winter activity is sitting on the couch and watching football.

As usual, you dose off with a beer in one hand and a chicken wing in the other. When you wake up, there is a fresh blanket of snow of the ground. You quickly finish the beer and chicken wing (still in your hand) before heading outside for some competitive shoveling with the neighbors.

Uh-oh, I don’t like where this is going.

As you venture outside for the first time in days, your body starts to react to the cold temperature. Your heart goes into overdrive in an effort to keep your body warm. This means a faster heart rate and a rise in blood pressure. Paying no mind to all this, you start shoveling. Game over – permanent snow angel!

Prepare for Yeti

Does this mean it’s safer to stay inside on the couch? No – you just need to prepare your body for cold weather activity. The best way to prepare your body is to stay in shape during the winter months.

You can safely do this with a combination of indoor AND outdoor workouts. Before heading into the great outdoors, make sure you:

  • Warm-up inside – Stretch your muscles and get your heart rate up a bit in order to warm the core.
  • Dress appropriately – Dress in layers and avoid cotton or any material that will retain moisture. Don’t forget a hat and gloves. Rule of thumb is to dress for about 15 degrees warmer than it really is so you don’t overheat.
  • Wear reflective clothing – If you are walking or running before or after work, it’s likely dark. Make sure others can see you by wearing reflective materials in as many places as possible.

Once out there, watch your step.   It’s winter, so be on the lookout for ice, wet leafs, and Yeti.  Why all these words of caution (remember what happened when you rushed outside to shovel that snow)? A recent study found that heart attacks happen at the beginning of winter vacations. Why? Rapid transition from couch to slope.

Winter Motivation

Preparation may be the easy part in regards to winter exercise. Motivation can be the real challenge. Winter tends to make us lazy.  So how do you stay motivated during the winter months?

  • Set goals – remember, the beach is only six months away. Start preparing now! New Year’s resolutions might help get things started.
  • Take your “before” picture – enough said.
  • Train for an event – find a 5K or similar race coming to your area in the spring. Get a training plan and stick to it.
  • Hire a trainer – financial loss it typically a good motivator.

You are now prepared and motivated.  Step away from the TV and enjoy the benefits of some outdoor activity.

Coldrun=Photo credit: Alfred Hermida / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Basis Peak – The Best Fitness Tracker You Can Buy

Basis Peak Fitness TrackerI love the new Basis Peak fitness watch. I have tried several other fitness trackers including, the Fitbit Flex, Samsung Galaxy Gear 2, and the Basis B-1. I can tell you the Peak is the best one out there – hands down!

What is the Basis Peak?

The Basis Peak is a new fitness and sleep tracker that also happens to be a smart watch. This means a single device that provides fitness and sleep analysis – including heart rate during exercise – with smart watch notifications (coming soon). Check out the video below for a complete overview.

Why is a Fitness Tracker Important To Me?

I have been blessed with a number of cardiac conditions. These conditions have motivated me to exercise. I have also been blessed with an addictive personality, which means I exercise quite frequently, sometimes to an extreme.

One of my heart conditions, arrhythmia (A-Fib), means my heart rate can race out of control at times, especially while exercising. I have an implanted defibrillator that will shock my heart back to a normal rhythm when this occurs. However, I like to avoid that shocking experience as much as possible.

How do I avoid these shocks (for the most part)? I monitor my heart rate during exercise.  When I see my heart rate approaching the magic number that will fire my defibrillator, I back off on what I am doing.

The Stinky Solution

Over the years, I have used a variety of devices to monitor my heart rate. I started with watch and chest strap combo devices. In this scenario, the watch is typically a big ugly plastic device wirelessly paired with a monitor that is attached to a band wrapped around your chest.

I then moved on to a chest strap that paired with an app on my phone. This got rid of the ugly watch, but meant I needed my phone with my while exercising.  Also, not as convenient as looking at the watch to see my heart rate since it was strapped to my arm.

Honestly, either scenario was somewhat of a pain. The chest straps have to be adjusted to fit just about every time they are worn. The contacts on the straps need moisture in order to work, which usually meant rubbing spit on the contacts or using Electrode gel. On top of that, the straps start to smell bad after enough runs!

The Almost Right Solution

When Basis came out with the B-1 activity tracker last year, I thought all my problems had been solved. The B-1 was capable of tracking your heart rate through sensors on the back of the watch. Another amazing feature – It could tell what activity I was doing (run, bike, walk, sleep) with no input required from me. Magically, all the data gathered by the tracker would show up on the mybasis website. Pretty cool stuff. However, there were several problems with B-1:

  1. The heart rate monitor was inconsistent. The measurements were not as accurate as a chest strap monitor and were not real time.
  2. The strap kept breaking. An obvious design flaw.  In their defense, Basis sent me a new watch both times this happened.
  3. It was butt ugly. It looked like the first digital watch I had in 1978.

I loved the concept, but couldn’t trust the heart rate monitor. So, it was back to the clunky watch and stinky chest strap.

The Right Solution

When all the Apple watch talk started, I began to get excited for a solution to my fitness tracker/heart rate monitor needs.  However, when the specs finally came out, I saw a little more focus on style and apps, and less of the true fitness tracking I was looking for.  Then something arrived in my inbox – an email from Basis (since acquired by Intel) letting me know that help was on the way – the new Basis Peak!

I preordered my Peak immediately.  Once it finally arrived in late November, I was not disappointed.  This watch has everything I was looking for (and more on the way).  The best thing about the old Basis B-1 holds true in the new Basis Peak – no need for user interaction.  Unlike the Fitbit or Samsung, I don’t have to tell my Peak when I am going for a run, bike ride, or even a nap – it automagically knows and starts to track my activity.

So what happens to the data captured by the Peak?  It is synced, to your phone and uploaded to the mybasis website.  This first image is a snapshot of all my activity from a single day.

Basis Peak Activity Details

As you can see, there is a lot of information displayed on this chart.  You can toggle what is display based on your preferences. Of note here is the spike around noon.  On this day I went for a run at lunch.  The heart rate and perspiration went up, but the skin temp went down. Makes sense since the outside temperature was in the mid-30s and I was not wearing a jacket.  It’s impressive to see all this data tracked at such a detailed and accurate level.

The next image is a more detailed snapshot of what was going on during the run.

Basis Peak Run Activity Detail

The green bars are the calories burned during the run.  I also turned on the heart rate and skin temperature toggles.  You can see that my skin temperature continued to go down the longer I was outside (it was cold).  Also interesting is the missing heart rate data around 12:40.  I didn’t die, the Peak just lost contact with my skin briefly.  In my limited use of the Peak, this happens occasionally.  Around 12:50 my heart rate starts to go up.  This tracks very will with the course I was running – think hills.  And remember, I am watching my heart rate live on my watch to make sure I don’t push it too far.

This next image provides insight into how I slept on the night of the run.

Basis Peak Sleep Activity

Sleep continues to be the weak link in my overall fitness.  Although a 90% sleep score looks good, I need to get more sleep and at least a little deep sleep.  I got up a couple of times and slept lightly for the majority of the night.  This was after getting up early, working out in the morning, running at lunch, and working all day.  Something to work on.

This final image is very interesting to a HeartGeek.  Pattern charts are available for heart rate, calories, steps, perspiration and skin temperature.

Basis Peak Patterns

My pattern is pretty consistent, which is a good thing.  My heart rate is at it’s lowest while sleeping and winding down in the evening – makes sense.  There is a spike around 7 AM which is the time I usually workout – again, makes sense.  What’s odd is my heart rate goes up occasionally around noon and 6PM. This could mean I am a very active eater and I get excited to go home and see my family.  It could also mean that I usually walk somewhere to buy my lunch and get in my car at the end of the day.  For the record, I am excited to go home and see my family at the end of the day!

What’s Great About the Peak

The Basis Peak’s ability to automatically track activity and sleep sets it apart from the competition.  Also, the continuous heart rate monitoring provides the best accuracy of any wrist worn device out there.  Here is a summary of the good:

  1. It does the work – No pressing buttons to let the watch know I am going on a run or going to sleep.  Put it on and forget about it.
  2. Constant heart rate – Very important for a HeartGeek.  Much better than the previous version.
  3. Waterproof – Can be worn while swimming or in the shower.
  4. It’s always on – I don’t have to tap the screen or flick my wrist to see the time.  But, I wish the date was always on also.
  5. Good insight – The web app is great and provides a ton of insight into your activity and sleep.  I am not sold on the mobile app yet.
  6. Shares data – My heart rate is shared with Endomondo, another fitness app I use on my phone to track distance.  It also works with Strava and MapMyRun.
  7. Slim design – This thing actually looks halfway decent.  It much smaller and more fashionable than the previous version.
  8. It’s a watch – I like watches.  I don’t like wearing a fitness band and a watch.
  9. Comfortable – The strap is very comfortable.  I wear the watch 23 hours per day and no complaints yet.

What’s Just OK About the Peak

I love the Peak, but it is not perfect.  A few things that could be improved:

  1. Heart rate monitoring – there are occasional dropouts for heart rate monitoring.
  2. It does not track distance – no GPS.
  3. It’s a watch – only a negative if you don’t like wearing a watch.
  4. Mobile app needs some design work.
  5. It has to be charged – They all do and the battery life is decent (4-5 days), but I am holding out hope for better battery performance in the future.

As you can see, the positives outweigh the negatives, and things are about to get better.  In the next couple of weeks, Basis will release a firmware update that provide realtime notifications.  This means you’ll be able to get notifications for texts, calls and calendar events without having to look at your phone.

If you are thinking about buying a fitness tracker, the Peak is the one to get – hands down.

Holiday Heart – Celebrating Your Way To a Heart Attack

Drinking SantaThe holiday party season has officially kicked off. While Thanksgiving gives us a single day to demonstrate our ability to consume mass quantities of food and alcohol, the Christmas “season” gives us an entire month! No wonder it is the most magical time of the year.

Although magical, Christmas is not the healthiest time of the year. According to a study in the Circulation publication, “The number of cardiac deaths is higher on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on Dec. 26, and third highest on Jan. 1.”

What’s behind all this holiday doom and gloom? Say hello to Holiday Heart!

What is Holiday Heart?

I had the pleasure of learning about holiday heart several years ago from a doctor in the ER. The term first appeared in the late 1970’s when Philip Ettinger described holiday heart syndrome:

HHS (holiday heart syndrome) is the occurrence, in healthy people without heart disease known to cause arrhythmia, of an acute cardiac rhythm disturbance, most frequently atrial fibrillation, after binge drinking.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Heart?

Time for a good news/bad news answer. The good news: Alcohol can provide cardiovascular benefits when consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association (AHA) describes apparent benefits of moderate alcohol consumption due to the role of antioxidants, an increase in HDL (the good cholesterol) or anti-clotting properties.

Before you get too excited, exercise works better to increase HDL and an aspirin a day does a better job at providing anti-clotting properties. I can imagine people now planning for the best of both worlds – walk home from the Christmas party and pop an aspirin!

Now the bad news.   Alcohol can be addictive, cause liver disease, heart disease, and even cancer. Specific to HHS, excessive or binge drinking leads to dilated cardiomyopathy (heart disease), known to be a cause of not only cardiac failure, but also has been associated with atrial fibrillation and other cardiac arrhythmias.

These arrhythmias, while more common amongst heavy drinkers, can also appear in otherwise moderate drinkers going on a holiday “binge”.

How is that for a buzz kill?

What Are the Symptoms of Holiday Heart?

Holiday heart symptoms include an irregular or fast heart rate, shortness of breath, and/or dizziness. Although holiday heart is generally non-life threatening, the condition should not be ignored. If you are experiencing these symptoms, go to the ER and have yourself checked out, particularly if you have a pre-existing heart condition. The alternative is ruining everyone’s Christmas when you actually do have a heart attack!

How to Avoid a Holiday Trip to the ER

You don’t have to give yourself the gift of holiday heart this season. Take a few simple precautions:

  1. Pace Yourself – You don’t have to say yes to every invitation. Try to avoid consecutive nights of heavy drinking. When you do drink, spread the drinks out over the course of the evening. Having a glass of water every other drink is an effective pacing strategy.
  2. Drink Less – This one seems so easy, but may prove to be the most difficult. Success may have something to do with what kind of a drinker you are outside of the holidays. More moderate drinkers may be able to set a limit and stick to it. Heavy drinkers may just need to leave the party early!
  3. Drink More – Water, I’m talking about water. Alcohol is a diuretic. This means you pee a lot and could become dehydrated. Drinking a glass of water every other drink is also a part of your pacing strategy – remember?
  4. Eat Some – Food can slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream. Hopefully, this will keep you more sober so you can remember steps 1-3.

It’s the holidays – relax and enjoy yourself, but don’t forget to take care of yourself.


“The Truth Behind More Holiday Heart Attacks.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Tonelo, David, Rui Providência, and Lino Gonçalves. “Holiday Heart Syndrome Revisited after 34 Years.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 01 Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

“Alcohol and Heart Health.” Alcohol and Heart Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.

Photo credit: sameb / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA