President has a heart worth bragging about A resting heart rate of 43 beats per minute. Look out, athletes.

Posted: August 09, 2001

Liberals may carp that the President has a hard heart. But no one can quibble with its efficiency.

The thing's a Swiss clock, a slow-tocking metronome, a humming Texas motor that could very well rank George W. Bush among the world's fittest people - in comparable shape to most professional basketball players, college football players, and major-league baseball players.

That's the interpretation of some fitness experts who were wowed by one startling piece of data released by the White House after Bush's medical checkup Saturday: The man's resting heart rate is 43 beats per minute.

So while weak-hearted Vice President Cheney and the rest of us are left to curse our butchers and our chromosomes, Bush is living an ber-healthy life with a steady, unhurried pulse.

"Good night! It's incredible!" said Jim Brown, executive editor of the Georgia Tech University Sports Medicine and Performance Newsletter, and a Ph.D. fitness guru. "I doubt there's an NBA player with a resting heart rate of 43. And it's safe to say professional basketball players are among the fittest people around."

The fittest basketball players are guards, who are "extremely aerobically conditioned," according to Sixers team cardiologist Alfred Bove. "If the President's resting rate is at 43, it's in the range of a well-conditioned NBA guard or a marathon runner."

Bush's heart, beating for 55 years, compares favorably to the one that runs superstar Sixers guard Allen Iverson, whose resting heart rate is in the low 50s, said internist Brad Fenton, the Sixers' head medical physician.

So fine-tuned is the Bush pump, health meisters say, that it beats slower than those of many college football players. Their resting hearts thump around 50 times a minute, said cardiologist John Cantwell, a consultant for the Georgia Tech athletic department who was chief medical officer for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

"He has the numbers of a triathlete, or a rower, or a mountain climber," Cantwell said. Plus, at 118 over 74, "he has the blood pressure of a teenager."

Bush blows away baseball players, too, Cantwell said. A Phillies spokesman said most players have resting heart rates in the low 70s: "They're not aerobic-type athletes."

The slowest resting heart rate ever reported by medical science, by the way, was 28, recorded by a runner. The average person's rate is 70 beats per minute.

Resting heart rate measures the number of times per minute one's heart has to beat to push out blood to muscles, organs and the brain. Usually, it's calculated after a person has been sedentary for 15 minutes or more, without having exercised recently, doctors say.

What is the practical advantage of a low resting heart rate?

"People with slower heart rates tend to live longer," said Paul Thompson, director of cardiovascular research and preventive cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut.

It is no small irony that the leader of the world's most self-indulgent, obese nation is a wiry 6-footer in super shape. But that's good news for financial markets around the world, whose solvencies are tied to the ticker in the Oval Office.

"It's awfully nice to have a healthy president," said Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to four presidents. "We spend so much time worrying about an unhealthy vice president," he added, referring to Cheney's heart attacks.

This all means, of course, that if Bush is ultimately denied the dream of drilling for oil in Alaska, he might get upset, but his heart probably won't sputter.

Along with his sterling resting heart rate and blood pressure, Bush boasts a total cholesterol level of 170 (under 200 is healthy). He is 6 feet tall and weighs 189.75 pounds, with 14.5 percent body fat (16 percent is average).

To what does the President owe his great numbers? True, he has exercised faithfully for decades, running 12 to 15 miles a week and lifting weights.

But, like a lot of what Bush has, much of his health was a gift from dad and grandpa, another dollop of good fortune served up by that generous family silver spoon.

"To a large extent, aerobic fitness is genetically determined," said Barry Franklin, a Ph.D. physiologist and director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

"You can only improve your fitness level by 20 to 25 percent. That's why we say Olympic athletes are truly born, not made."

The elder George Bush was captain of the Yale baseball team, a runner, a tennis player, and a golfer. His own father, Sen. Prescott Bush, was a gifted golfer.

Still, as in-shape as Bush is, he may not be the fittest U.S. president.

Historians rank Gerald Ford as the most athletic president; he starred on the University of Michigan's 1932-33 national championship football teams.

Then there's Bill Clinton, who, while having a reputation for a being a doughy Krispy Kreme worshiper, actually posted a better-than-average resting heart rate of 60 at his last presidential physical.

Not surprisingly, a few people are skeptical of W.'s good numbers, openly wondering about a conspiracy theory to show him off as a better specimen than he really is. "It could all be spin, maybe CIA stuff," Brown, of Georgia Tech, joked.

And a couple of doctors worried that Bush's resting heart rate might actually be too low. In some cases, a rate of less than 60 beats per minute can mean that a person has a condition known as bradycardia, a too-slow beat. But, said Nicholas DiNubile, another Sixers doctor, it's indicated by weakness and fainting attacks, symptoms the President hasn't displayed.

As long as the President's doctors are telling the truth, it's not such a bad thing to have a chief executive who could kick some international butt, should he ever be called on to do so, a la Harrison Ford in the presidential kidnap movie Air Force One.

"We're in need of some direction on physical health," Hess, the Brookings fellow, said. "Every mother wants her son to be president. Maybe every mother should also want him to be a slim, healthy president, too."

Alfred Lubrano's e-mail address is alubrano@phillynews.com.

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