By: Vivian A. Kominos, M.D., FACC
A study recently published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, found that the Tsimane have the healthiest arteries. The Tsimane are a group of people in a remote corner of the Bolivian Jungle who farm and forage for food. Anthropologists who have studied this population for many years report that they have very few risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In a research project, over 700 Tsimane traveled for days to get CT scans of their hearts. These scans showed that most had no calcium in their arteries. Calcium is a marker for blockages in the arteries: the more calcium, the greater the risk for heart disease. The researchers found that the average 80 year old Tsimane had the arteries of a 50 year old American!
Scientists have asked the question, why are they the healthiest people on earth? Is it possible that the answer can be found by looking at their lifestyle? While processed foods make up more than half of the standard American diet, the Tsimane eat mainly wild game, fish, maize, fruits and nuts. Their diet is very low in saturated fat and most of their calories are from plants. And while the typical American walks 6,000 steps, the Tsimane walk 17,000 steps. They have to walk for their food: they hunt, fish, and farm. They live in a connected culture where they have large families and strong community connections.
Cardiologists agree that up to 80% of premature heart attacks and strokes can be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle. Maybe we can take lessons from the Tsimane. Besides diet and social connectedness, the amount of physical activity differs greatly from Americans. The Tsimane walk 8 miles a day just to live their normal every day existence while the average American walks 2.8 miles. We live in a sedentary culture where food is delivered to our doors, meetings take place over the computer, and the TV connects us to the rest of the world. More and more evidence has revealed that sitting time is dangerous. Those who sit and watch TV more than 4 hours a day have 50% greater risk of death and 125% greater risk of heart disease when compared to those that watch TV less than 2 hours a day.
I am not advocating that we give up our modern conveniences. But it is obvious that we need to move more. The current recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that we get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity and 2 sessions of some form of resistance training that work our major muscle groups. Examples of moderate physical activity include walking 30 minutes, five times a week at a brisk 3-4 minute mile pace, riding a bike at 5-9 miles per hour, ballroom dancing, or playing doubles tennis. But suppose you cannot exercise this much? I tell all my patients that ANY exercise is better than no exercise and simply to become more active.
There are many ways to build activity into your day. Park at the farthest space in the lot rather than the closest to the store. Stand when you are on the phone. Walk to colleagues’ offices when you need to talk to them instead of texting or emailing. Create multiple work stations at work and at home so that you do not sit in the same position for extended periods. And if you do have a sedentary job, see if you can get a standing desk. And if you have to sit for long periods, get up every 20 minutes and walk for a couple minutes. When you go to concerts or games, don’t bring a chair but stand and pace. Cook your own food and go for a brief walk after eating.