Fortunate to have dodged cancellation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Heart Games is on “track” for its next event year: 2022. Held every three years, the Olympic-style contest invites participants with cardiac complications to move off the sidelines and get back in the game. Greeted with all the fanfare of the official international competition—including an opening ceremony, torch relay, flags, and inspirational music—the athletes arrive with purpose on their minds. Many of them are cardiac rehabilitation (CR) patients, but they all come with something to prove: I’m beating cardiac disease—not the other way around!
With the opportunity to demonstrate their skill in any of nearly 20 individual or team activities—from basketball and tennis to softball throw and bowling—the program provides a fun and safe platform to “reclaim the joy of sports,” which is the motto of the games.
That objective is both near and dear to F. Stuart Sanders, MD, FACP, MAACVPR, FACSM, who savors the opportunity to combine his passion for CR with his love of sports medicine. Sanders served for 28 years as a collegiate team doctor, is an Olympic & U.S. Figure Skating physician and also is an adjunct professor of cardiology at Atlanta’s Emory University. From his past position as medical director for the Georgia Association of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, which launched the Heart of Gold Games in 1990, Sanders watched the event grow and thrive. Years later, as the first president of the AACVPR Heart & Lung Foundation, he would prove instrumental in bringing the competition to AACVPR as the International Heart & Lung Games in 2003 and 2006 and, finally, to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) as the World Heart Games, which held its inaugural event in 2010.
Every third year since then, organizers have seen 60 to 80 athletes from as far away as California and Rhode Island show up—usually with their CR professionals, i.e., coaches and cheerleaders, in tow.
'Dream Teams' and Solo Superstars Welcome
Organizers are hoping for an even bigger turnout June 3-4, 2022 at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. To achieve that, they’re spreading the word about the broad eligibility criteria. Sanders notes that while the original focus was on people with a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease, anyone who has risk factors can take part as well. “That’s most Americans!” he points out, including those with high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Importantly, Sanders adds, while the World Heart Games are not specifically targeted to participants with lung trouble, pulmonary patients are welcome. “Just because you have COPD doesn’t mean you can’t come,” he clarifies, “you just have to have hypertension or some other risk factor for heart disease, too.” You also don’t have to necessarily be a CR patient to compete, either, or be part of a team. Anyone who has heart disease or is at risk for it can join the fun, and is encouraged to do so.
CR practices won’t want to miss out either, though, Sanders is betting. After all, a big part of the event’s mission is to promote cardiovascular fitness and cardiovascular rehab. “CR is a prime example of the concept that ‘exercise is medicine’,” he asserts. On top of that, Sanders credits the games as a “great camaraderie-builder for patients and rehab staff.” He says busy CR professionals shouldn’t feel pressured to take on the planning and organizing for their team; they can delegate a patient “captain” to do the heavy lifting—figuratively, of course, not literally! That’s not one of the sanctioned events.
What is on the list, including the activities already mentioned, are golf putting, golf (2-man scramble), game of knowledge, pickleball, racquetball, disc golf, volleyball, soccer shoot, and table tennis. And, believe it or not, Sanders recalls the cornhole competition being rather popular and quite lively. Meanwhile, single registrants can be paired with another single to qualify for team competition. All activity is done under the watchful eyes of circulating doctors and nurses who make sure no one experiences unhealthy adrenaline spikes in the throes of competition or otherwise gets into medical trouble.
Perhaps the most popular of the events are those where athletes are challenging themselves, rather than the group. So-called prediction events include walk, jog, swim, row, Airdyne bike, and Nustep. Participants guess their expected finish time at registration and then try to come as close to that target as possible, without help from coaches or clocks. “It’s not like you’re racing [U.S. sprinter] Michael Johnson next to you,” Sanders explains. “You could be the slowest one out there and still win the medal.”
That’s what the victors walk away with and, according to Sanders, he knows of a few who were buried with their medals when they eventually died. The awards are paid for with some of the money generated by registration fees, which also bankroll the golf tees, baseball caps, and other swag competitors receive as well as the water and snacks on hand to keep the athletes nourished.
To help defray the cost of participation for non-local athletes who must travel to attend the World Heart Games, there are eight scholarships up for grabs—including three intended for international teams. U.S. teams of two or more can also apply for one of five $1,000 scholarships offered by event partner AACVPR. There is a February 14, 2022, deadline for submitting AACVPR scholarship applications; information on requirements and event details can be found on AACVPR's website at aacvpr.org/Connect/ACSM-World-Heart-Games. Additional information is available on the event website at acsm.org/whg2022.
|2022 World Heart Games Committee: F. Stuart Sanders, MD, FACSM, FACP, MAACVPR, Chair; John P. Porcari, PhD, FACSM, MAACVPR; Carl N. King, Ed.D, MAACVPR; Walt R. Thompson, PhD, FASCM, FAACVPR; Debra B. Lund, MS, RCEP, FAACVPR; Korey Sixbury, President, LSI; Thomas A. Draper, MBA, MAACVPR; Kristin Belleson, CEO, ACSM; Eric Utterback, ACSM; Tiffany M. Maxson, MHA, Event Coordinator