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Hunting the Healthy Heartby Don H. Meredith © 1997
(published in the January 1997 Edmonton Sports Scene)

planning the hunt

We've all experienced it — that sudden rush of blood as the pulse quickens in anticipation of a coming hunt. We can't help it, whether we're a youth just starting out, or an old pro who's seen it all. It's something built into our physiology that probably dates back to when one of our ancestors first picked up a rock to get something different on the menu.

Unfortunately, most of us are not as physically fit as that ancestor, and that's where danger lies. Unlike our primitive ancestors who were driven by fear and hunger, our modern-day lifestyles don't support physical fitness. Even during a hunt, many of us prefer to drive an all-terrain vehicle rather than walk.

Recent studies have shown that hunting can be very dangerous for the hunter's heart, especially if that hunter is prone to heart disease. In one study in Wisconsin (as reported in the November 12, 1996 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), medical researchers fitted 25 hunters with instruments that recorded each person's heart rate during various phases of deer hunts.

Your heart rate is the number of beats your heart makes in a minute. The heart of a healthy, young and vigorous person can take a lot of physical strain and routinely handle 200+ beats per minute for short periods of time. But as we age, our hearts lose some of that vigor and capacity. As a rule of thumb, exercise physiologists have set a person's maximum heart rate as roughly 220 beats per minute minus the person's age. So, if you are 35 years old, your maximum heart rate is about 185.

However, the physiologists have also determined that you should not sustain a heart rate greater than 85% of your maximum rate (157 beats per minute for a 35 year old) for any length of time as this may cause too much strain on your heart. If you have underlying heart disease, you could trigger a heart attack.

The Wisconsin study found that in many hunting activities, heart rates regularly exceeded the 85% rule. In some individuals, the maximum rates were exceeded by as much as 16% (or 215 beats per minute for a 35 year old).

Just walking to your tree stand in the early morning before the hunt begins can cause your heart rate to exceed 85% of maximum. This happened to 18 of the 25 hunters studied in Wisconsin. This is not hard for hunters to understand. We've all experienced the excitement of anticipating what's to come. But, it gets worse.

In the Wisconsin study, the average heart rate of the 25 hunters rose above 90% of maximum when they were walking through the woods looking for game, or when they saw, shot at or hit a deer.

You might think that once you have an animal down you can relax and your heart can take a rest. Not so! In dragging a deer out of the woods, the average heart rate was 97% of maximum.

These Wisconsin figures are averages. So, individual hunters had rates that were either above or below these numbers. What the numbers show is that a majority of these people were out of shape and risking their lives.

What can you do to reduce the risk?

While hunting:

  • Don't smoke! Smoking speeds the heart rate and reduces the amount of oxygen the blood can carry.
  • Take it easy! Walk slowly. Take frequent breaks. This will help your heart and your hunting technique.
  • Get help to drag out your game. Hunting with a buddy has many benefits, and it just might save your heart.
  • Don't ignore the symptoms of a heart attack — dizziness, chest pain or nausea. If you feel any of these, seek medical help immediately.

What you do in the off season can be just as important as during the season. What I've learned over the years is that I must continually work on my physical fitness if I want to really enjoy what I do outdoors. So, I have worked a fitness program into my weekly routine, and it has paid dividends over the long run.

If you're considering a fitness program, keep the following in mind:

  • Get a medical checkup before you start. This is especially important if you're over 40 or have had some health problems.
  • Start slowly. The point is to develop a program that is enjoyable enough for you to make it part of your routine. If you become injured or discouraged, you're not helping yourself. Begin by walking to your neighbors or the store instead of taking the car. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. As you feel comfortable with the new activities, increase the distance and occurrence.
  • Slowly work yourself into a program of regular activities that you enjoy. Be sure to include those that bring your heart rate up to at least 70% of maximum for a period of time that you can sustain comfortably. Jogging, bike riding and cross-country skiing are great heart rate challengers. Remember, your heart is a muscle like others in your body. It needs to work in order to stay in shape. (Note: If you are unsure of what type of program is right for you, check out the schools and gyms in your community that offer fitness appraisals and counselling.)
  • Finally, while hunting, leave that ATV in camp until you need it to carry out your game. Hunt on foot. Take time to enjoy your sport in the way it was meant to be enjoyed, quietly and carefully.

If you resist the temptation to fall back into your old lifestyle, you will soon start feeling good about yourself and your ability to do things outdoors. When you're doing what you enjoy, that kind of feeling is hard to beat.


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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner