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Wild Thing, You Make My Heart Zing

Wed., Nov. 13, 1996

Spotting a deer during hunting season is a thrill - maybe even a dangerous one.

A study of middle-age male hunters tramping through the woods found that the heart races wildly at the sight of a big buck. In fact, the excitement may be more than some folks can stand.

During a typical deer season in Michigan, about a dozen hunters die of heart attacks. So researchers at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., rigged up 25 hunters with portable heart monitors to see what happens.

“Just seeing a deer - not even taking a shot - the heart rate shoots up,” said Susan Haapaniemi, an exercise physiologist who coordinated the study.

Heart rates of some men would almost double when they saw a deer, even if they were standing completely still. One fellow’s heart soared from 78 to 168 beats per minute when he caught a glimpse of a 10-point buck. No one in the study actually dropped dead in the woods.

Studies have shown that sudden strenuous exercise - a little more than what it takes to climb stairs - can be enough to trigger a heart attack in people with underlying heart disease.

“Deer hunting falls into that category,” Haapaniemi said. “We have shown that hunting is an extremely strenuous activity and might be dangerous for some people.”

The researchers put the men on treadmills to find their maximum heart rates. It turned out that, in the woods, their hearts often beat at the maximum rate, especially when walking, shooting at a deer or dragging out a carcass.

When questioned afterward, though, many of the men had no idea that their hearts were racing.

The idea that hunting makes the heart beat fast was hardly a surprise Tuesday among hunters attending an American Heart Association conference, where Haapaniemi presented her findings.

“It makes sense,” said Stephen Boppart, a hunter and student at Harvard Medical School. “There is incredible anticipation and anxiety while hunting.”

Dr. Gerd Meyer of Kiel, Germany, said that in his experience, dragging dead animals out of the woods is the hardest part. “You almost pass out,” he said. “It’s unbelievably strenuous.”

Haapaniemi has these recommendations for hunters:

Get on an exercise program to build up your endurance before hunting season.

See a doctor to check for heart disease, especially if you smoke, have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or other risk factors.

Take frequent breaks, especially if winded.

Don’t drag out a deer if you have heart disease. Get help instead.

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