Is Hunting Killing Your Heart?

by Brandon Smith, D&DH reader

Not until last season, when I strapped on a monitor, have I ever considered how hard my heart beats while hunting.

Although opinion varies, many doctors caution against exercising at a level greater than 85 percent of a person’s maximum heart rate. This increases the risk of heart attack.

Keep your heart healthy and have a safe hunt

Whether you're hunting or doing other work, don't let your heart rate exceed 85% of your maximum rate. As a rule of thumb, your maximum rate is 220 minus your age.

For men, maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting age from 220. For me, the equation reads 220 – 21 = 199. Eighty-five percent of that is 169.

I found myself battling to keep my heart rate below 169 throughout deer hunting season. Just hiking trails in west Texas, I quickly exceeded my 85 percent maximum. I attained my season high of 201 while pulling a whitetail on a game cart that had two flat tires.

My experiences echoed the results of a study conducted by Michigan’s Beaumont Hospital. Published in 2007 in the American Journal of Cardiology, the study fitted heart monitors on 25 middle-aged hunters, 17 of whom had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease.

During deer season, all but three exceeded the maximum rate they had achieved on a treadmill test. Dragging downed game raised heart rates to the most dangerous levels, but several men experienced jumps into the red zone simply from spotting or shooting at a deer.

According to study co-author Dr. Barry Franklin, the strain hunting puts on the heart is attributed to three factors: hunting’s strenuous nature, the epinephrine (or “excitement”) response upon seeing game and environmental stresses, including cold weather and altitude.

Franklin also notes that many hunters in the study exhibited life-threatening heart-rhythm irregularities (aka cardiac arrhythmia) that had not been apparent on EKG readouts during laboratory treadmill tests. This was a disturbing finding. Heart arrhythmia is the trigger for cardiac arrest.

So what can you do to keep your heart working during the hunting months?

First, get a stress test. Treadmills and EKG monitors can reveal arrhythmia and arterial blockages that increase risks for heart attack. If you are diagnosed with heart disease, your doctor may prescribe nitroglycerin tablets, which dilate blood vessels that may be constricted. A pacemaker that detects irregular heartbeat and shocks the heart back into rhythm may be an option for patients at high risk.

Always carry an uncoated aspirin tablet in a pocket. Chew and swallow it to thin your blood at the onset of chest pain.

Once you have the green light from your doctor, buy a heart rate monitor. Many models include alarms that can be set to your maximum safe rate.

Then embark upon a doctor-approved exercise program. Aerobic exercise that keeps your heart working between 65 and 85 percent of your calculated maximum (the fitter you are, the harder you can work your heart) increases the capacity of the muscle to pump the blood and oxygen needed for the rigors of hunting. It also reduces the chance of dangerous jumps in pulse rate. Exercise in the target zone for 20 minutes at least three times a week.

It’s important to stay fit before heading out for a hunt. Take care of your heart and let it only race from excitement, not over-exertion.

Brandon Smith is a hunter from Texas. He hasn’t missed a season since he began hunting at age 8. His writing and research has been featured in many publications.